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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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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.
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 :)
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
;) more like 1/4--I've snatched a good 3/4 for myself.
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
another true story
After the success of All in the Family,
Norman Lear could have pissed on a ream of paper and sold it to a network,
because the person who approved it had the insurance of saying,
"Who would have guessed that a Norman Lear project would have failed?"

Among other things, Vince Lombardi said,
"If the networks discover they can make more money broadcasting chinese checkers,
they will."

Publishers and agents are concerned with selling books,
and there are a number of factors involved in that,
and you don't have to look too hard to find a lot of successful crap.
However, for those who don't meet the other criteria,
writing a good book is the essential first step.
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
okay, story time...
A good Catholic on his knees cries out,
"Lord, over and over I have prayed to win the lottery, and haven't.
Aren't you listening?"

Suddenly, a rumbling, clouds parting, bright light, and a voice.
"Yes, I've been listening. Now you listen.
Go down to the Kwik-e-mart and buy a lotto ticket for once."

I've never heard of a successful author who didn't admit to being lucky,
but, as someone-or-other said,
luck is often knowing when and where to take your chances,
and no one gets into a poker game without having something to bring to the table.
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
Re: okay, story time...
I admit to FEELING lucky, but being the daughter of a gambling man, I don't believe in luck, only, as you say, knowing when and where to take your chances. ;)
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
Re: okay, story time...
there IS a degree of luck in everything,
but as Paul Baumer says,
every soldier trusts his luck and takes his chances...

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



Books by my writer friends - compressed

NJ Writing groups - compressed

NJ writing conference - compressed

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