On The Subject Of Writing Advice

I see it from time to time: this sense of flipped-up middle-fingers, this iconoclastic anti-establishment vibe, this sentiment of, “Fuck writing advice, the only way to learn writing is to write, only those who can’t do teach, blah blah blah, suck my butt-pucker, pen-puppet.” I dig it. I get it. Once in a while I feel like gesturing at ideas and notions with my scrotum held firmly in my grip, too. “Grr! Look at my balls. My balls.”

Except, obviously, I spend a lot of time here as the dispenser of dubious writing wisdom. You may find that this practice is some mixture of awe-inspiring, helpful, irritating, or so infuriating you crack your molars gritting your teeth. Regardless, whenever I see an attack on the practice of giving out writing advice, I can’t help it: I find my hackles raised. I get a little twitchy. I taste this coppery taste on the back of my tongue, I hear this high-pitched whine, and next thing I know I wake up in the snow surrounded by 13 bodies. Always 13. No, I don’t know why. I only know that it’s getting troublesome digging all these goddamn graves.

Anywho, I figured I’d talk a little bit about writing advice from a personal perspective. Why do I do it? What does it mean to me? What do I think about it at the end of the day? Why do I keep gesturing at people with my testicles? And so on, and so forth.

I Like Writing Advice

I have long appreciated writing advice.

I don’t like all of it. I’ve never responded much to the hippy-dippy memoir vibe you get from some advisors — I prefer a look at writing and the writer’s life from on the ground. I like the pragmatic, reality-level approach (and presumably that shows in my own dispensed pseudo-wisdom).

However, there’s often a complaint that writing advice is tantamount to masturbation: the giver of advice as well as its receivers are basically just diddling themselves, and accomplishing nothing for it.

I think this can be true. Like Eddy Webb talks about at his site (“My Advice? Stop Listening To Advice“), I know full well you have those writers out there who’d much rather spend time talking about writing than they would spend time actually writing. For them it’s just a hollow intellectual exercise, or worse, a way to feel like a “real” writer without actually putting in the work.

Advice is worthless if you don’t put it into practice.

Me, I always tried to put it into practice. I’ve read a number of writing books over my years as a Rare Bearded Penmonkey — advice from Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury. Now I read a lot of books on screenwriting (Blake Snyder, Alex Epstein being two favorites).

All of it’s useful. I don’t believe you can just “write your way” into being a good writer. A lot of it is reading (or in terms of film, watching). But it helps to have that information framed by those who practice their craft. You can learn stuff from writing advice. I know I have.

It’s For Me More Than It Is You

I am a selfish jerk.

I write things on this site that interest me. Things I think are funny, or interesting, or most of all, topics that challenge me. I think, “Okay, I want to take a look at this idea or problem and kick its ass.” I only talk about things that have affected me in one way or another. I try to be honest. I try to be forthright.

And I am always selfish. The advice is for me before it’s for you.

This site is a lovely sounding board.

Tools For Your Toolbox

This is how I view writing advice:

Each piece is a tool for your toolbox. You pick each tool up. You hold it in your hand. You implement it or at least imagine its implementation — whanging it against a spaceplane propeller, ratcheting up a unicorn’s horn, neutering a slumbering god — and then you either put it into your toolbox to use again or you discard it with the understanding of, “I will never need a Victorian-era cervical dilator.”

When I sit down read advice from other writers, that’s how I take it. I don’t take every piece of advice and immediately think “I’ve found the answer!” I use some. I throw away the rest. And I become better just by thinking about and tweaking my craft.

No Inviolable “One True Way”

Anybody who tells you they have The One True Oh My God Answer To Writing is full of shit. Not just regular shit, either, but some bizarre equine-cattle hybrid of bullhorseshit or horseybullshit.

Nothing I tell you here at terribleminds will be the One True Way. Hell, I won’t even suggest that it’s the One True Way for me. I change up my game from time to time. I never outlined before — I am a “pantser” at heart (which also translates to: I do not like to be constrained by pants). But, once I incorporated outlining (because I had to, not because I wanted to), it became a change-up in the way I do things.

Now, I outline. It made my job easier, and my output stronger.

Still — you don’t outline? You don’t write queries like I do? You make sweet public love to adverbs? Awesome. That’s your business. Plenty of very successful writers violate supposedly inviolable rules.

So, no, there exists no One True Way.

Ahhh, but here’s the caveat: that’s a two-way street, hombre. Many of those who loudly exclaim that there is no One True Way then cling white-knuckled to their own personal One True Way. And to that, I say: loosen your grip. Let go! Just a little. Just as the guy giving advice doesn’t have The Divine Answer, accept that you don’t have it, either. Accept that your way could always be improved. Always. Always! Nobody has a perfect process. Nobody is the best writer on the block. You can always up your game.

You don’t up your game by doing more of the same.

I don’t have the One True Way.

But that also means: nobody else does, either.

Writing Advice Is Neither Good Nor Bad

You’ll often see comments — “This is good advice,” or, “This advice sucks.”

No. Nope, nuh-uh, nichts, nah, nooooo. Well, okay, fine, you’ll probably find some truly terrible advice (“When submitting to an agent, don’t forget to prematurely insult her for rejecting your glorious manuscript. Also, use lots of misplaced commas. It’s considered ‘arty’ and will ensure that they know you are a serious auteur“). But for the most part, writing doesn’t break down into “good” or “bad.”

It breaks down to: “works for me” and “doesn’t work for me.”

Like I said earlier: every tool has its purpose. You may just not find that a given tool suits you. And that’s okay. But it may suit someone else. And that’s not only okay: that’s pretty awesome.

Duh, It’s All Bullshit

Of course it’s all bullshit. Writing advice is always YMMV. Writing advice is just like writing itself: it’s speculative, it’s fictional, it’s made-up, it’s squawking into the void. Hell, I look back at advice I gave last year and some of it sounds great. Other parts? Not so much. Opinions change. Styles change. Advice shifts. The more we know, the more we change, and the more we change, the less we know.

Which makes no sense. Shut up. No, you’re stupidfaced! What?

Writing advice is all just made-up.

But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. And it doesn’t mean you should take a dump on the practice, either — don’t like it? No problem. Don’t read it. Avoid it. Nobody would be upset with you for that. I don’t find much value in reading yarn blogs, so I don’t go and visit yarn blogs or even think twice about them. It doesn’t mean I’m going to write an angry froth-mouthed fecal screed titled, “Fuck Yarn.”

…but now I just might.

Yeah. Fuck Yarn. Right in its Yarn Hole!

*middle fingers*

*gestures with scrotum*

*urine everywhere*

18 comments

  • Hearty agreement, especially on the “It’s for me” part. I look at my writing blog as a daily place to brainstorm. I’ve found that I brainstorm better with an audience, much like a tornado is only interesting if it has a trailer park to smash. The great organization of writing ideas I get just from writing a random pile of them down every day is worth the thirty minutes, tops, it takes to make a post. And who knows, maybe somebody else will find it useful?

  • First off, I have to say that your last words, especially the very very last two, almost made me spit out coffee all over my computer screen. Thanks for making my day.

    I am a bit of a writing advice addict. I love reading it. But I agree that people–including myself–should experiment more with what they hear and read, practice it, before deciding if it’s good or bad. Actually use the advice and find out if it works or not….and you know, actually use it.

    My way is that I believe advice I see more than once by people I think know their stuff. Also, I look at works I LOVE and see if the advice is used in it. If it does, then I know it’s true and put it in my tool kit.

    That’s how I do anyways.

  • David: Word. It helps me to understand my process when I have to explain it to other people. Which makes it thankfully repeatable.

    EC: Thank you! With terribleminds, I don’t always aim to be useful, but I generally aim to be at least amusing. Even if only in a “that monkey just peed on himself” manner.

    Amber: I hope I do not owe you a new monitor. :)

    — c.

  • My favorite writing books so far: Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and On Moral Fiction; anything by Bryan Garner (legal writing); GWW’s Writing Fiction (this one in particular is chock full of good stuff). Didn’t much get into a couple of Orson Scott Card books I picked up (How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint) – although I tend to like “genre” themes I’m not sure that I like reading “genre” crap much, because it’s often crappily written. Plus his tone was just sort of … I dunno … condescending? Defensive? Lame?

    First thing I ever read about writing was Stephen King’s On Writing, which I still enjoy. He is mostly memoir, though, and not so much on the practical nuts and bolts advice. And ultimately I’m a nuts and bolts guy, like you, it seems.

    I think the best thing for me though has been subscribing to the Internet Writers Workshop email lists. You will get exposed to a huge pile of just awful, awful stuff. Here and there are a few interesting ideas or a few well written sentences. But it helps to look at something that is simply awful, and try to figure out why. And, of course, not do that. Ever. (This is not to suggest that I am successful in that objective.)

  • You nailed it with the toolbox metaphor [no pun intended, really]. Exactly how I feel: I may implement the writing advice I read, I may not, but even if I don’t, it forces me to consider my own process and why I do or don’t write in a certain way. The important thing is to be conscientious and vigilant, and writing advice forces me to do just that. Incidentally, the same thing applies to a lot of parenting advice: there is SO MUCH parenting advice out there that can be overwhelming, but there’s not a single right way to raise a kid. Some advice works, some of it doesn’t, depending on the parent and the kid. Considering all of it carefully leads to more conscientious parenting.

  • Word of non-writing advise. If you know how many bodies you will need to bury, always dig the holes first. Less time for them to get all bloated and stinky, or for them to be out in the open where kids and cops can see them.

    No practical experience with that, naturally. Just good New England practicality.

  • My blog is all about diddling myself. I admit it. I don’t give a shit. And you know what else? I feel more educated than the non-blogging writer because of it.

    Really, blogging with writing advice is a win-win, as long as you don’t put more effort into it than needed. It can save your life. Seriously.

  • Great advice for the advice-shy. I sometimes have to rant about all the rule-based advice given as if it’s engraved on golden tablets. I consider writing a learning process. And the “advice” I give on my blog is strictly from my own experience. It’s just that my experience sometimes seems to be so off-the-wall that I’m compelled to shout out to the few others like me. Blogging about it is a way to look at it more objectively and continue the learning process.

  • One of your recent posts about why not to write for a living made me think, especially when you, like many other authors before you, stated the first novel was destined for the shelf, and I ended up mentioning that mentality in my blog.

    Imagine my horror when this post popped up today.

    I completely agree with you – some advice I’ve really taken to, and some I’ve thought was bitter and nonsensical, and that goes for a lot of authors, some of them fitting into both categories. I look back at opinions on anything at all that I held to firmly years back and feel that they just don’t match who I am now at all, as a writer, or as anything else.

    It’s important to share your own advice, I think. What I worry about is the fact that good advice tends to be lost on those who haven’t been rejected by any publisher, editor or agent yet, simply because no one whose opinion they respect by default has yet turned to them and said “this approach has produced something I don’t enjoy, and I’ll wager no one else will enjoy it, either.” Great post, something to think about, definitely.

  • I’m going to have to disagree with Scott, especially in the New England capacity.

    Having the holes pre-dug shows intent to hide, it also is a good way to have someone else steal your holes. You want to have some other way of disposing the bodies handy. Like the industrial plant on a near by college campus, or the pig trough for the agricultural farming college in the area.

    That being said, love the advice, and the humor. They’re why I keep coming back. Especially couldn’t agree more on the fact that you need to write for yourself, especially when writing advice.

  • Writing advice is also handy for reminding oneself of forgotten bits, because there are so many writerly things happening at once in every paragraph. You may have the prettiest plot ever working perfectly, and then you wander off and read an article on characters – and suddenly you realise why your readers don’t seem to care. And then you fix it.

    Louise Curtis (who will swap you a pony for your Victorian-era cervical dilator)

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