It was another whirlwind of a weekend over here.
The Man and I hooked up the camper and headed over to Helena, Montana, to see my oldest daughter graduate from Carroll College. We had a few camper issues and a little unexpected weather, but it was a great weekend full of food, wine, people, good wishes, and abundant blessings. The Princess, who has been saying since she was literally two-years-old that she wanted to be a nurse, is now in possession of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She has a job lined up starting in mid-June, so we’ll be helping her move to her new home base in a couple of weeks, and she’ll be embarking on the next phase of her life.
Anyway, as The Man and I continue to forge ahead through this busy season, I wanted to share some thoughts about writing advice. I’ve been thinking a lot for the last several months about how inundated the Internet is with advice for writers–everything from how to write a book to how to publish and market it–and I’m honestly a little tired of it. This kind of goes back to my ruminations on the guru culture, too.
So I’m going to potentially get a little bit grouchy for a bit, and this may not be my final word on all this, but I need to vent a little. You can chalk it up to my emerging empty nest syndrome, my transition into the menopausal truth-teller, or just my normal curmudgeonly nature; there’s probably a bit of all three of those things in this post. You’ve all been warned.
With the proper disclaimer out of the way, here’s the TL;DR version of what I’m going to say:
Most writing advice–including the advice I’ve given–is crap.
Now for the long version.
Who Is Giving All This Advice, Anyway?
Let’s back up a bit and look at who offers advice, where it’s offered, and why we all care so much.
Put aside the greats like Stephen King for a moment and just think about the kind of writing advice you’ve typically heard. These days, most of the advice we get is online via blogs or newsletters. It may also come from other writers at conferences or in video form.
Who is writing and producing this stuff? Other writers.
Listen, I’m indicting myself here. I’ve written my share of writing advice over the years. Maybe something I’ve said has helped other people. I certainly hope so, but also, I hope that other writers didn’t take me too seriously, because you know what? I don’t know anything.
Like a lot of other writers, I was told I needed to blog and write articles and promote myself, but not be too salesy and promotional about my books. “Platform building” they called it. So in the quest for topics, I wrote about what I knew (or thought I knew), which meant writing about writing. I also thought that writing about writing would potentially attract readers, because writers are also readers and maybe they’d read my stuff to see if I know what I’m talking about. And I suppose there was also an element of trying to prove my bona fides–to demonstrate that yes, I could say the right things about writing and prove that I know what I’m doing.
You know what? Most other writing advice comes from the same place–writers who need topics and want prove that they know what they’re doing and maybe also attract some new readers in the process.
Here’s the thing. Unless you are Stephen King or Anne Lamott, you will most likely not find your audience among other writers. Writers have a lot on our plates–families, day jobs, pets, and all the other things that go into making us normal(ish) people. Writers who also read want to read stuff in their genres, or they read stuff for their day jobs, or they read books outside their normal fare just to escape. The point is–they are not looking for more advice.
And if you are a writer, you should also not be looking for more advice.
Of course you need to listen to trusted beta readers and editors, but random, non-targeted advice from the Internet or that one person in your critique group who hasn’t ever shared anything but totally knows how you should write your stuff?
The Advice I’ve Received
Here’s some of the advice I’ve heard over the years:
- Don’t describe your characters’ physical appearance.
- Vary your dialogue tags.
- Only use “said” as a dialogue tag.
- Don’t use prologues.
- Do use a prologue.
- Avoid exposition. It’s boring and people won’t read it.
- Use some exposition for worldbuilding.
- Don’t open chapters or sections with people waking up.
- Only use one POV character.
- Outline all your plots before you write.
- Do character interviews to find out every detail before you write your characters.
Those are just off the top of my head, and those are mostly about the actual writing in a story. There’s also plenty of advice out there about how often to write, how much to write, how you should think about writing, why you should write…
It’s sort of endless.
But here’s the thing:
If you are spending all your time reading about writing, you know what you aren’t doing?
The Only Writing Advice That Matters
I want to say that I do draw a distinction between writing advice and writing commiseration. (Here is where I would like to point out that “commiseration” comes from the Latin root words that mean “to lament with,” and if that doesn’t describe writers, I don’t know what does. I’ve often said that the collective noun for writer should be “misery”–“a misery of writers.”)
I think that writing commiseration falls into a different category than advice. Commiseration means sharing the struggles of this weird thing where we lie to explore deeper truths. When I write about the things I’ve learned about writing, I’m telling you what my experience has been and trying to encourage, not prescribe solutions. If I share memes about how hard this all is, I know there are other writers who can relate. And as I fight my way through doubt, imposter syndrome, and discouragement, I hope to find a community that can share those struggles and encourage me.
Here’s what I want to say to you. If you are a writer or artist of any kind, remember that if everyone had followed the rules or the advice, we wouldn’t have really any of the great works of art we celebrate today. Jane Austen’s wit would never have enlightened modern romances. Picasso would just be a guy who drew weird shapes. We might not have Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Motown, or Prince. Everything that we now see as cutting edge, innovative, or brilliantly subversive was once just something that defied explanation, broke rules, and ignored advice.
So what’s the only advice that matters?
How often, how much, where you do it, why you do it, whether you write one epic novel or forty–it doesn’t matter. Your Muse is your Muse, and your work is your work. Yes yes yes–you should edit and have others edit and offer feedback, but you don’t have to take their advice. Just write, edit, publish, and move on to the next thing, and then lather, rinse, repeat.
(Yes, I’m working on taking this advice myself.)
Next week, a non-fiction book review of The Creative Act: A Way of Being, by Rick Rubin. If I finish it by then… If not, well… I’ll surprise you with something.
See you next week!