The joys and perils of writing advice

There is a veritable ton of writing advice out there, covering almost every aspect of writing. There’s advice on how to get into a story. How to carry the story forward, what to do when you get stuck, how to beat writer’s block, how to finish, how to edit, how to revise and how many times to revise. There’s tips on plot, character, setting, word choice, punctuation. Kurt Vonnegut apparently had a thing against semicolons; whatever, man.

If you do a Google search on, say, beating writer’s block, the advice you get is pretty much all over the map. Take a nap! No, wait, go outside and be active instead! Or hey, why don’t you re-structure and create a detailed outline? No, instead do some freestyle writing. Listen to music…or meditate in silence. Get drunk. Sober up. Get out of your chair. Stay in your chair until you regain the thread. Read up on the topic. Read up on anything but the topic.

Dude. 

There is, in fact, an entire marketplace of advice for aspiring writers. Some of it is excellent. Some of it isn’t. You could go to a dozen writing workshops a year with top-flight talent — for which you’d pay tens of thousands of dollars, mind you — and come away with several dozen hot takes on your writing. Invariably, those takes will contradict one another at some point, unless you are objectively awful (in which case you should take up crocheting or home improvement) or the next coming of Hemingway (in which case you should take up alcohol and beards).

I occasionally get asked for advice, which I find lovely and flattering. In the interest of good karma and paying it forward, I reply to the best of my ability. Usually, that simply takes the form of me talking about how I may have overcome the problem in the past, and little else. I actually have very strong opinions on novel-writing and getting the work done, but I try very hard not to be prescriptive, though, because I know what worked for me may not work for others.

See, the thing about all this advice…it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that you can try, a lot of super ideas, and some of them may work for you. But you can also end up diving deep into the advice rabbit-hole, too. Maybe the idea you tried for characterization worked out great, but hey…what if there’s a better idea? Better go look. Gee, that workshop was great, but I don’t know if I agree with that author’s opinion — maybe I should get a second opinion? There’s another workshop in a few months.

Keep doing that and you run the risk of just gathering advice and not, you know, finishing the work.

The ultimate arbiter of your writing is you. Writing is your story. Everybody else can basically opine as they see fit, both in general and specific to your writing, but it’s up to you as to whether you really want to take those opinions and how much weight you give them. Neil Gaiman summed it up well when he said:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Neil’s not disparaging advice, per se. He’s warning against exactitude in that advice. A piece of art rarely works for every single person — we’re too diverse and too opinionated a species for everyone to agree on something. The story is your art, it comes from you, and the person it most has to please is you. Whether others like it is for them to decide. If enough people like it, and buy it, then it becomes successful art, at least in terms of your wallet.

Me, I have one overarching piece of writing advice, and that is to write the thing. Yes, you can grab as much advice or opinion as you like. Read up, workshop with a writing group, pay to go to conferences — whatever you desire. Or just sit at the desk and bang on the keys without anybody chiming in, which is basically what I did. But at some point, you’ve got to sit down, write your story and get to THE END.

That’s it. That’s my advice. Butt in chair, write the story, get to THE END. Whatever path you take to get there, just make sure that A) it’s working for you and supporting you rather than making you question yourself; and B) the path leads to THE END.

(Those are, by the way, awesome words to type. The sense of accomplishment there is pretty great. In fact, I’ve actually typed THE END on all my novels and shorts — and then gone back to erase it because, frankly, nobody actually puts THE END at the end anymore. But it’s good to do. Cathartic, man. Try it. Or not. Again, it’s your call.)

#SFWApro

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