Sunday, July 29, 2012

Not-So-Helpful Advice

I've read a lot of books on writing.  Some of the advice in them didn't really make an impact.  Others have changed the way I write forever.  No single author has influenced me more than Orson Scott Card, and considering I met most of my fellow Prosers through his writer's forum, I get the feeling I'm not alone.

My slightly understocked reference section at home
I've read his book How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy so many times that my copy finally gave out and I'm faced with the task of buying a new one.  Characters and Viewpoints has fared a little better, probably because I sat down and made a master copy of the most helpful advice and saved it to my hard drive.  I love every explanation, every tip, every example Orson Scott Card uses.  I come away from those two books with a sense of "Yes I can!"

But not every writing book is fantastic.  In fact, some are downright wrong.  Advice comes in all shapes and sizes, and while I've seen the "butt in the chair" advice a million times, I don't always agree with it.  So here's a look at some advice I stubbornly ignore from time to time.

1. "Writing equals ass in chair."  --Stephen King, On Writing
I'm sure I'll get reamed for this one, but hear me out.  Sometimes you shouldn't force yourself to push through that tough spot.  Sometimes you need to take a breather.  You never know where a fix will come from.  Inspiration can happen in the shower, at the park, on a long drive.  Sometimes your brain just needs to step back look at the story from another angle.  I'm not advocating procrastination.  I'm just saying give your brain a break once in a while.  You never know what you'll come up with.

2. "It can be fixed."
I always attribute this one to Orson Scott Card, though now that I'm sitting down and actually looking for the reference, I can't find it.  I want to start by saying, I love this advice.  It is scrawled on the inside of ever journal I own.  Usually I see those words and they fortify my resolve.  I power through whatever block I'm having and worry about fixing it later.  Then there are times when I want to carve those words into my computer and set that sucker on fire, because let's be honest, it can't always be fixed.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't write it.  You'll learn more from the mistakes than you will from success.  But once in a while, you'll have to face facts and let a plot line, character, or entire story go.

3. "The first million words is trash."
I first heard a variation of this when reading Michael W. Dean's $30 Writing School.  Since then it's been popping up all over the place.  At first, I simply took it for fact.  Writers, like everyone, have to pay their dues, and a million words seemed reasonable.  (Did I mention I was 19 at the time?)  Since then, I've learned a few things.  For starters, what I write can be called a lot of things: a rough draft, a learning experience, a stepping stone.  Trash (or any interchangeable expletive) isn't on the list.  I've hit my million words and I'm still growing as a writer.  There are things in my earliest stories that I still love, and things I know are glaring errors in my newer drafts.  I wholeheartedly believe you can't measure quality from quantity, and I wish this phrase (like many annoying opinions masquerading as truth on the Internet) would just die already.

4. "Don't even bother."
This usually comes from an unsupportive (and usually bitter) family member/friend/acquaintance.  I'm sure they mean well (nope, can't even write that without rolling my eyes) but this is probably the WORST advice anyone can ever give a writer.  Is writing hard?  You bet.  Is it lousy pay?  Usually.  Are the odds against me?  Oh, yeah.  Here's my question for you.  So what?  If you want to write, write.  You don't need anyone's permission to be a writer, and while support is nice, you don't need that, either.  Writing is a solitary business.  We sit for hours on end at the computer and pour our skill, talent and hearts into our work.  Some days, it's agonizing.  Your characters, plot, and dialogue all seem to fight against you.  Other days, all the words are there and you can't keep up with the flow.  Those days are, for lack of a better word, magic.  They are rare, for me at least, and the majority of my days are somewhere in between these two extremes, but it's the magic that keeps me coming back for more.  If I'd followed the "don't even bother" advice ten years ago, I'd never have found out what those days are like, and how great it feels when I find them.

I've learned the hard way to take advice with a grain of salt.  I still collect the Elements of Fiction Writing books, and I'm always on the hunt for the next blog that will help mold me into a better writer, but at the end of the day, I've got to stick with what works for me.

So what makes your list of worst advice for writers?


  1. "The first million words is trash." I've heard variations of that one so often, and in a way, it's true. I know I'm a much better writer than I was when I started. But the power of the ideas I had when I first started writing still amazes me. If only there was some way to merge the two--the amazing storylines from when we first start writing with the writing finesse we acquire as we practice.

  2. Great points, all of them. I know a lot of my best inspiration takes place away from the computer. Butt in chair is good advice, but sometimes it is necessary to get away from the computer and clear your head.

    I don't like advice that is worded in absolutes. One advice which I'm sure works for some, but doesn't work for me is "write it up and send it out with minimal or no revisions." I know this works for some people, but I know I learn a lot in revisions, and I worry that it appeals to new writers because revising is hard, and it gives them permission not to try to make their stories better.

    I prefer, writing is rewriting. It works for me, but I know it doesn't work for everyone. We all just need to find our own paths. :)

    1. Very true. I haven't heard the "writing is rewriting" before, but that is very true for me as well. I know I'll never be one of those people that gets it right the first time.

  3. I love reading posts when I sit there nodding in agreement the entire way through. This is one such post.

    And yeah, the only thing better than reading writing tips by Orson Scott Card is sitting in an audience and hearing it first hand.

    1. I'm sure it's an amazing experience, and one of these years I hope to have the opportunity to attend one of his conferences. I can't even imagine what that must be like, but I'm sure the people who go come away better, more knowledgable writers.


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