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When it comes to offering writing advice, I’m very careful. My usual recommendation is to find out what works best for you, and do that, a lot.

Mind you, over the last few years, I’ve come across a lot of tips and opinions about writing. I’m not talking about ‘How to’ books (though I’ve read a fair amount of those), I’m talking about things I’ve seen online or heard people say at writing groups, conferences, or on blogs. 

A lot of those statements seem to make sense at first, but the more I thought about them, the more I came to realize that, while no doubt sincere and/or well-intended, much of that ‘wisdom’ was impractical, potentially damaging, or just plain wrong.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list some of the more common misconceptions I’ve heard, along with an explanation of why (in my opinion) they’re really not helpful at all.

Forget outlines, Stephen King doesn’t use them and he does okay.
So what if Stephen King doesn’t outline? The guy’s an amazing writer who’ll probably be remembered as a literary genius 100 years from now. What works for him isn’t important.  Does that mean I think folks should outline? Not at all, I just don’t think Stephen King’s approach to writing a novel should be used as a reason to avoid them.

Robert Heinlein never did rewrites.
I’ve heard this one quite a few times, and frankly, it’s not true. 

Now, some folks may be tempted to point to Mr. Heinlein’s famous Rules of Writing #3 You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.’ The trouble is, too many people read only the rule and not the explanation. They think it means you should just write the story, then send it out, but I would urge you to read the explanation he put with that rule, in which he says:

‘My editing process involves several passes of the entire novel, then a chapter-by-chapter review. I hammer away at each and every chapter for as long as it takes. I risk exhaustion with this process, but it's what works for me. But at some point you have say, "I'm done", and resist all further temptations to re-write any more.’ 

I added the bold and underline on ‘further,’ but it sure doesn’t sound like Mr. Heinlein thinks folks don’t need to bother with rewrites, does it?

If you want to be a better writer, write every day and you will improve.
This is the sort of advice that sounds good, but when you think about it, how is writing every day going to make you a better writer? More prolific?  Sure. A faster typist? Absolutely. But a better writer? I don’t see how. 

Surely, that only happens when you get an informed opinion telling you what you’re doing right and what needs improving (or in many cases adding), so you can work on those aspects. For that, you need outside help, whether it’s from a good critique group, a helpful editor, or even a mentor.


Today’s publishing world is a lottery.
I wonder how many of today’s published authors realize that all those long hours spent slogging away, honing their craft, polishing their story-telling technique, were unnecessary.  Aside from being a silly thing to say, I imagine most published authors would find it quite offensive.

Christopher Paolini self-published and it worked out well for him.
Yes, and back in the early 1950s, my old gran won the all-county spittoon championships three years running - and to this day holds the distance record (24’ 6”). Neither of those things are likely to make any difference to the success or failure of a self-published book today. So it worked out well for Christopher Paolini.  Good for him, but using that as justification for taking the self-pub route is as daft as someone who’s looking to be traditionally published saying, “That book at the top of the NY Times best-seller list was traditionally published and it worked out well for him/her.”

 
I’ll go over some more (in my opinion) dangerous myths, lies and half-truths about writing in a future post, but in the meantime, how about you?

What bad (or dangerously incomplete) advice have you heard people offer to writers?


 




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( 111 comments — Leave a comment )
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mtlawson
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, and I'd argue that Paolini could have benefited from a lot more aggressive editing as well.

Maybe Stephen King doesn't do outlines, but you can bet he knows where he wants to go. If you're just meandering around, it will show. (I know from experience.)
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:16 pm (UTC)
Actually, I quite enjoyed Eragon, though I found the movie a bit of a disappontment. Like I say, good luck to anyone whose book becomes a hit, I just can't see the logic behind using someone else's success as proof/justification for self-publishing. It just seems illogical to me.

Then again, maybe I'm missing something.

Thanks for sharing, Mike :)

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You're right. - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
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brian_ohio
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
Crap! What do I do with this Lotto Ticket?
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
Lol :)
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jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
I think that's the trouble with generalizations. Folks can misinterpret them.
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jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
Just the basis for the Paolini thing, I guess, but --

"New York is an insidious, incestuous place where you need to know someone to get published. The slush pile is for losers, and self-publishing is for winners."

So many, many things wrong with that statement, and yet it gets circulated many places on a regular basis.


Surely, that only happens when you get an informed opinion telling you what you’re doing right and what needs improving (or in many cases adding), so you can work on those aspects. For that, you need outside help, whether it’s from a good critique group, a helpful editor, or even a mentor.

Disagree, at least to some extent. By writing regularly and in an uninformed way, one might pick up bad habits, but if one's reading at the same time--reading a variety of works by different authors--I think that at least some of the lessons you're getting from the reading are likely filter through into the writing. (And Lord knows, there are plenty of bad editors, myopic critique groups, and misinformed mentors out there. )
jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
ETA
Thanks for the post. Always good to re-examine the worth of old chestnuts.
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jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to hear it, but is that all you've done, or have you also studied/read other folks efforts, sought feedback about your work, and/or tried to learn more about the craft along the way?

I don't think writing every day is the wrong thing to do, but it's only part of what's needed, if we want to improve, wouldn't you say?
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bogwitch64
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
Sometimes, Jon, I think we might share a brain. Contrary to popular belief, I'm a very practical, logical person.

Stop laughing, and wipe the snot off your monitor.

I've heard all those 'tips' over the years and thought much the same thing you've written here. Boggles the mind, what people will believe to justify their own actions--or lack thereof. One of my top pet peeves about writing is the notion that publishing is a lottery. Yes, there is something to be said for the right book getting to the right publisher at the right time--but the book HAS to be good!!! And I truly believe that a good book will eventually find a home. If it doesn't, then there's something just not quite right about it, whether it's the writing or what's been published recently, etc.

That goes along with another misconception of publishing: It's not about having connections! You can know a ton of people in publishing and if you're not writing good stuff, it's not going anywhere any more than if you knew no one. Might get you READ, won't get you published.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
I agree. I'm sure connections can help, but why on earth would anyone publish a book, just because their friend wrote it?

As for us sharing a brain, you might be on to something. It would certainly explain why people often tell me I only use half of mine :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
another true story - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
okay, story time... - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: okay, story time... - bogwitch64 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: okay, story time... - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
martyn44
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
'Write what you know' which might be better expressed in Bob McKee's instruction to 'Know your world as well as God knows this one.' Which means something completely different.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
I've always thought 'Write what you know' was one of those deep and meaningless statements that sounds impressive but means nothing, which from a writing advice point of view, is somewhat ironic :)

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silverwerecat
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
Great post, but this made it gold for me:

"...back in the early 1950s, my old gran won the all-county spittoon championships three years running - and to this day holds the distance record (24’ 6”)."

Is it true? If so, my cats agree in unison that it's awesome. They're hairball-hacking champions as well. :p
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
Everything I say about my old gran is true...except the stuff that isn't ;)
Great moment from "No Country for Old Men" - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
temporus
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
Some thoughts.

Chris Paolini didn't self publish in the way most other people think he did. His parents already ran a small press, had the experience in publishing and then chose to publish Eragon. Which then garnered attention and was bought by a larger house. It's REALLY skating the line to call it self publishing.

Second, I'm going to disagree with you on the point that you don't see how you'd be a better writer if you write every day. Come now, you are also a musician and you can't convince me you don't understand the value of practice on your own. Sure, if one spent all those practice hours under the watchful eye of a teacher/mentor, you'll get MORE out of the practice than you would if you do it in a room by yourself. But that hardly is a requirement to improve. I can, for example, learn to play a song by listening to an albumn over and over, and playing along note for note until I've got the whole thing down. I don't need an outside opinion to tell me every note I screwed up in the guitar solo. I can hear it with my own ears. Same is true for writing. Yes having external help will speed up the process, and informed opinion is like having a good music teacher help you through the tough arpeggios. But it's not necessary. You can make it on your own without help. (Why you wouldn't want to have help, that's a whole other question)

On the otherhand, if you don't actually write, you aren't going to get better at it. Just as if you don't suddenly become a concert pianist by sitting around talking and thinking about how you'd play the piano. You get better by doing.
msstacy13
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:57 pm (UTC)
good point re Eragon.

However, you get better at piano by practicing,
not simply running your fingers over the keys.

I've tinkled every day for years,
but haven't gotten any better at it.

Even if it is self-directed, writing regularly is only of help
if it is actual practice, actual exercise.

That's not to say you should stop writing every day,
only that no one should begin writing every day without understanding
that it is exercise, it is practice.
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aalford
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
Heinlein's 3rd rule is a beauty, but yes, you have to read the whole thing. Perfectionism is one thing, neurotic obessession another. The rule was not addressed to the lazy, but to folks whose sense of perfectionism becomes counterproductive.

As far as lotteries are concerned, well, there are a couple ways of looking at that. The first way is, "Shoot, it's just a question of odds, odds so stacked against me that my writing is powerless against it."

Some magazines and journals handle literally thousands of manuscripts a month. Glimmer Train, I think, claims to process upwards of 4,000 per month--and they're a quarterly publication with room for maybe 8-10 stories per issue.

So there is a point at which it does become a lottery. But even so, it's a unique kind of lottery, because the writer can do things to get their entries to bubble up to the top of the lottery barrel!

Those that believe it's a lottery in the purest sense probably don't even bother to read their so-called "target" publications.
Well, shoot, right there you probably stand a better chance with Pick 6.
msstacy13
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
Everything I write is a final draft,
but that doesn't mean it might not be more final after I've taken another look at it.
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(no subject) - temporus - Apr. 21st, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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msstacy13
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
I couldn't find the calvin and hobbes cartoon,
or the snoopy cartoon,
but it has occurred to me that someday someone will write
a tremendously successful novel about a mental case
living in a basement apartment,
and I'll wish I'd listened to that one about writing what you know.
wordsrmylife
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Only Literature (with a capital L) is worth writing. By that, of course, they mean something for adults, with potential prize-winning capabilities.

I say, write what interests you. If your aim is to make a living as a writer, there's absolutely nothing wrong with writing genre fiction, if that's what you have a knack for, and if you can tell stories that find an audience. Even if you don't want to make your living as a writer, write what interests you, because it's the only thing that you'll find satisfyinig.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, the Literature luvvies. Each to their own, but when you start setting your own genre above all others, I think you miss out on a lot of entertaining work.

I definitely agree with 'Write what interests you.' It makes a lot more sense to me than 'Write what you know.'

Thanks for sharing, Katherine :)
(Deleted comment)
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
But only if it's really, really, really necessary, right ;)
asakiyume
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
I like particularly what you did with the Heinlein one: put it in context. Usually these rules are a lot more nuanced when you look at what people actually said. And you have to remember to apply common sense when you think about the rules (or suggestions or advice or whatever you want to call them).

I sometimes find myself listening to author interviews on the radio, and one thing I've definitely noticed is that people's habits and what works for them varies *dramatically*. What one person strongly recommends, another person may strongly recommend *against*. This doesn't invalidate either recommendation; it just means--as we know--that people are very different and their approaches to writing are very different, too.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. For example, I don't try to write every day, but when I do write, I write a lot. That works for me. For other folks, the opposite approach gets the best results.
mongrelheart
Apr. 21st, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
I think people have a tendency to focus a single famous or successful individual, who may or may not be a total outlier, and to assume that (1) whatever worked for them, will work for everybody, and (2) that there's one "right path" to success.

As far as writing every day, it certainly is very helpful in getting used to the idea of regular practice & self-discipline, of sitting one's butt down in that chair and doing the thing even if you "don't feel like it". Not sure that writing every day, in itself, will necessarily result in an improvement in the *quality* of what is produced. I agree with you that informed feedback is also necessary. I also think that the more one challenges oneself to write better than one's current skill level, the more one improves.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
I think of it like playing table-tennis. You'll only really improve a lot if you play people slightly better than you.
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Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there


No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there















 











THE MEAGER PUDDLE OF LIMELIGHT AWARDS


Books by my writer friends - compressed

NJ Writing groups - compressed

NJ writing conference - compressed

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