Flipping back through older posts I realize I’ve never talked about the best writing advice. Probably because writing advice is such a large and conflicting field that it’s hard to pick out those nuggets that I think are worth it.
Your Rough Draft Will Be Shit – Or if you’re me, your second, third, fourth, and maybe even final draft will be a big pile of crap. It’s very difficult to imagine our favorite books starting out as garbage and often took years to turn into the finished we product we all love. The fact some famous books are still garbage in their final drafts is scary.
Another way to look at it comes from Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Maybe this is why I consider my first few drafts to be garbage. The first couple drafts find me fumbling around trying to figure the characters out and what the story is. I find this frustrating because I have done some sort of an outline, spending days brainstorming about plot points only to have most of those thrown out the window when I sit down to write. Maybe it’s not a case of me telling myself the story but the characters telling me what the story is.
Finish It – This one piece of advice I believe is great, but also consider it something which could hamstring a writer. I believe it’s great because yes, you should try and finish every story. To quote Neil Gaiman, “You will learn more from a glorious failure then you will from something you have never finished.” Yes, yes you can. You can learn that maybe the concept, genre, length, characters, whatever, isn’t for you at that moment or even ever. You can learn where your deficiencies lie and learn to strengthen your skills. You can learn what your strengths are and play those up.
But at the same time it’s okay not to finish. We all have several unfinished short stories and novels lying around our computers. I myself have a few stories and a couple of novels that are nowhere near completion. My reasons for stopping boil down to either telling myself the idea is stupid (it probably isn’t) or I got bored. I think this is unbelievably common for writers at all levels. Sometimes people stop a project because they personally weren’t ready for it. This could mean emotionally, or felt their skill level wasn’t quite there, or life simply got in the way. And sometimes there are some projects that just need to be stopped and never looked at ever again.
Don’t Listen to the Noise – I can’t really attribute this to any specific person. I guess you could say this is my own piece of advice. I’m not being arrogant or all-knowing when I suggest distancing yourself from the “noise”. What I mean by “noise” is all the articles, interviews, conferences, and yes, blog posts, we are inundated with. I’m not suggesting you never read or listen to advice. We are lifelong learners and should be open to new ideas as well as knowing what’s going on in the publishing world.
But it can be overwhelming. When it starts affecting your writing, perhaps it’s time to turn away from the noise. It’s incredibly easy to spend hours reading and learning about the craft and business and completely forget to actually write. Or to be bogged down by paralyzing thoughts. Is my work is sellable? Is my main character is sympathetic and likeable enough? What will my critique partner or group going to think about this chapter? Do I suck? It’s not long before you find yourself staring at a blank screen or the bottom of a liquor bottle without one word written.
The trick for each writer becomes to learn when it is appropriate to let the noise in. It’s not while you are drafting or researching or when the kernel of an idea pops up and needs to be written down. I can’t tell you when the right time is because each person must figure it out.
You Don’t Have to Physically Write Everyday – “Ass in Chair” and “Write Everyday No Matter What” are phrases drilled into writers pretty much from the beginning. These phrases are intended to get across writing is not easy and takes a lot of work and dedication. Unfortunately I think it also creates this notion that if one doesn’t write every single day of their life, then you clearly aren’t dedicated enough and aren’t a real writer.
This simply isn’t true. Anne Rice stated in a combined interview with her son she writes when inspired while her son tends to write daily. Both approaches work. Think about musicians. Some write songs almost every day. Some write at the studio when told by the record label they want another album. Still others write when the muse hits then go to the studio to record when there’s enough material.
Writing is the same. Some people are great at cranking out words every single day. Others work best in flurries of inspiration. One isn’t inherently better or will lead to success quicker than the other will. Instead of feeling guilty about not writing every day, be comfortable with what you are able to do. If you want to increase your word count, great. Figure out how to squeeze in those extra words but don’t beat yourself up.
I’m also bothered by the idea it is better to force oneself to write on a day the words aren’t flowing than to not write at all. Maybe because I’m a perfectionist and am really, really hard of myself, but I personally feel better if I take a day or two off if my brain is fried. Forcing myself when is a disservice to the characters and story. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to force myself. I do try to write every day, but I’ve noticed when my brain is tapped it takes longer to get into the groove. When I do take a few days off, I have more energy to tackle the story.
Finally, just because you aren’t physically writing doesn’t mean you aren’t writing. What I mean is subconsciously your brain is always working. Ever wonder why in the middle of the night or in the shower you have a “Eureka!” moment around a plot point you’ve been stuck on for days? That’s your brain writing, if you will.
The biggest and best piece of advice I have ever seen is figure out what works for you. Your process will evolve. May change from story to story. Or maybe you hit gold and find a consistent, winning process. But writing is not something with one “right” path. Realize advice you thought was solid may no longer apply. Or you realize how silly it is. Also, don’t be in awe of who is giving the advice. Be okay with questioning it and disregarding it even if it came out of the mouth of your favorite author.