Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Five things the writing experts won't tell you


You only have to spend a few minutes in the blogosphere to know there's a whole mountain of writing advice you could suffocate under. You could spend your whole life reading it. Perhaps you should. You'll certainly find some value there – you'll also find some nonsense. You'll even find the most blindingly insightful advice that just doesn't apply to you, your muse or your writing - and it may take you six novels following it before you realise that's the case. But amongst all that stuff there's five things the writing experts will never tell you – because if they did you might stop listening. Here they are:

The second draft can be shittier than the first

Particularly if it's your first work and you decide to follow all that advice everyone is falling over themselves to give you. It's not always the case, but it's possible. Just make sure you keep a copy of that first draft - the naïve and childlike and imaginative one you wrote before the over-worked Frankesteinian monstrosity you're currently wrestling with.

Following the rules can make your writing flat and formulaic

You can show rather than tell, start in media res, remove all exposition and backstory, strip all purpley description, give your characters goals and motivations and your scenes conflicts and it will still read like a rejected script for Eldorado. There's no trick to this – writing is not science, it's alchemy. And when you do finally turn that lead into gold, you'll probably have no bloody idea how you did it.

Revising can kill your originality

People know what they like, they know what they think is good writing - and it's not yours. It's the stuff that the establishment picked up on and the rest of the world followed. And your critique group are going to want to make you write like that. And if you follow all the advice they give you, you're going to end up with that Frankensteinian piece of shit that I mentioned earlier, with nothing of you and your originality left in it. Emulation is good, but there has to be a certain amount of 'fuck you' too. So when you revise, make sure it's your story you're revising, not somebody else's.

Flaws are like bad memories

You forget them and remember the good bits. If readers are swept away by the romance, the milieu or the story they won't care about too many adverbs or too much telling or backstory or whatever. No one says Tolkien has too much backstory; no one cares that Harry Potter is awash with adverbs, millions of readers don't give a toss that the Twilight series is one epic expert-writing fail. Do what you do and do it well.

You can't be taught, you have to learn

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the rules. I devour them – but I do it in order to know them in the hope that I can master them, and one day be free of them. I've nothing against writing experts – as long as their advice is truthful and born from experience and not just dogma they've garnered from other writing experts. One person's truth is, afterall, still truth, even if it's not yours.

But the fact remains - you can't tell between good or bad, relevant or irrelevant advice, until you know enough about writing – or more importantly your writing – to know the difference. And the only way you can do that is to keep writing and to keep making mistakes, because writing experts can't tell you, they can only show you the way. The creative responsibility is yours and yours alone.

But you won't believe me - and you shouldn't - until you've found out the hard way.

25 comments:

  1. 'You can't be taught writing, you have to learn'. Absolutely. Eventually you struggle free of the advice, rules and principles with a voice of your own and a style of storytelling that does what you want. In the end, it's all about being in control of your art,your way. Go James!

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  2. "Emulation is good, but there has to be a certain amount of 'fuck you' too." I love that! Totally agree!

    I am thinking it is mostly about the story in the end. We have to be faithful to the story and to the main character. We have to 'listen' to them and do whatever is needed to communicate their journey and experience.

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  3. Sometimes with the wrong crit partners who don't get what you're doing, I agree. The good stuff can get edited right out! And yes, you can be taught things but they won't be applied until you learn them!

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  4. I could not agree with this more, especially given that I have been drowning in the sea of advice for the past year. While much of the advice is solid, so was what my teachers gave me back in school, which I was then told by a published author that I should forget because it was all wrong. Right.

    After sifting through all the writing advice the one piece that I guarantee is correct is this: Just Write.

    Thinking this post just earned my unofficial "Post of the Week Award". Awesome job, James!

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  5. Such a liberating post! You have lifted a bag of cement off of my shoulders! Thank you!!!

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  6. Made me smile & made me feel better about breaking rules from time to time - thanks James!

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  7. Loved this. Thank you. I feel better already about my writing and the issues I've had with a few of those rules. :)

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  8. Dang it! You just confirmed the big fear that has been creeping up on me for months. It IS shittier! Now where did I save that first draft??

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  9. Yeah sometimes I worry when I'm working on my second and third drafts, that I might be making it worse.

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  10. Very well said, James! Thank you for this...I needed it ;p

    And thanks to Gene Lempp for giving James the spotlight!

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  11. Gosh, what a great post. Liked it a ton.
    -Ellie Ann

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  12. I'm really glad you wrote this post. Sometimes it feels like I will absolutely fail if I don't follow all of the "rules" and take the path to publication that I'm supposed to take. It's encouraging to read about how those rules aren't always true and to remember the element of magic that Stephen King alludes to in ON WRITING.

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  13. *stands and applauds* Bravo! Someone finally got it right and said it without watering down the truth! Thank you!

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  14. Thank you! I needed to hear this right now

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  15. Great post, all so simple and yet so true!

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  16. Thanks for all the great comments and support - obviously this post has really struck a cord with fellow writers. The originality revolution has begun...

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  17. I think I'm in love! This is the best writing advice I have heard to date! Exactly what I keep telling myself. Listen, but with an open heart and gut -
    Couldn't be happier to have found your site...
    And I love a man who can swear while giving advice!

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  18. This is the truest thing I've read on the Net about writing in a long time. I'd like to share with you why I think this is good advice. (The case in point is my own.) On What Grounds violated conventional rule after rule. The month Penguin's Berkley imprint released this mid-list mystery novel (with a marketing budget of zero dollars), it became the #1 bestseller of the IMBA (Independent Mystery Booksellers Association - USA). The book is now in its 16th printing, and I am writing the 11th book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series. Yes, I have learned plenty along the way, but the journey began with a single, flawed novel. Don't let anyone take away your voice, convictions, passion, and (yes) even your "mistakes," because in them you will find your power to reach and move readers.

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  19. I just discovered your blog, and I am so thankful for its insightful entries! I am a recovering MFA grad who suffered from such forensic examination of my work that I have struggled to get back in sync with my voice. In one class, we were only allowed to read the first sentences of our stories; in a class of 16, the instructor took nearly three hours dissecting and critiquing those sentences. While there is value in close reading, our instructor's relentless devouring our first sentences -- out of context of our stories -- shaped us into paranoid writers seeking his approval.

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  20. Thanks for your comment, Twila. What a nightmare that class sounds. I know opening lines are important, in fact I posted on then some time ago, but that seems ridiculous. Anyway, thank you for sharing and welcome to the blog.

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  21. I´m laughing AND nearly crying. After reading this, i realize that I was right after all. Now I have to bring out all my old first drafts and make peace with them. Thanks for giving us permission to give the world the finger and just WRITE what as want to write!

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    1. Mmm - funny, so much of my writing life seems to be laughing while nearly crying - normally when I'm reading over my first draft. Glad you liked the post. Hope you stick around for more.

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