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!
*gestures with scrotum*