Roasting Chestnuts: In Which This Heretic Tackles Common Writing Advice

I catch flak periodically because my writing advice on this site kind of pinballs and ricochets around — I’ll say one thing one day, and another thing another day. My advice vacillates. Well, of course it does. Writing advice is not math. It is not laser-engraved in a titanium plate. Writers are beholden to very few inarguable rules. This isn’t 2  + 2 = 4. It’s 2 + 2 = anything you jolly well want it to be.

I have opinions. Those opinions change because I’m a human being with a crazy brain. Further, I am a writer, which means my already-crazy brain is shot through with whiskey, syphilis, and magical parasites. Writers are not born. They’re made. By eating contaminated lunchmeat at a very early age.

Plus, I really like playing Devil’s Advocate. Not for any intellectual reasons — it’s just, hey, the Devil’s awesome. He’s all like, “Check out my suit, it’s Versace,” and then he’s waxing his demonic ‘stache and buying me a sweet-ass margarita machine in exchange for my soul and then next thing I know he’s tickling my lips with the tines of his trident and he’s like, “Yeah, go on, put it in your mouth. Put it in there. Suck it. Show the Devil how you suck it.” And I’m like, “That’s weird, Satan. Your trident tastes like maple syrup and sadness.” Then I run and cry but he will always find me.

Wow, that went off the reservation, didn’t it?

Point is, it’s time to play Devil’s Advocate. I thought, for poops and chuckles we could bandy about some classic “old chestnuts” of writing advice and see how accurate or useful they really are. From time to time it’s good to flip it and switch it, look at things from a different perspective. Let us begin.

Writers Write (Run In Your Stupid Wheel, You Crappy Little Hamster!)

Damn, I opened with this one? Man. This one’s gonna be hard to refute. I mean, this is the backbone of the writer’s life, isn’t it? And isn’t this that one piece of super-critical advice that separates the wannabes from the definitely-dos? I guess the thing here is that writers are more than the sum of a day’s writing. Writers are editors. Writers are marketers. Writers are thinkers. A given day of “writing” might constitute redrafting, outlining, answering emails, drinking Bourbon, wrestling with bonobo monkeys, pimping your work, book signings, imaginary laser battles, and, of course, endless sobbing.

(Related: “Writers Don’t Do That“)

Write What You Know, Lest Everything You Write Be Inauthentic Piffle

This is bad advice in that it really doesn’t say what it means. Generally, simpler is better, and brevity is the soul of wit and all that bloo-dee-bloo. But here the advice is better written as:

“Write what you know, but make sure you recognize that you know a lot more stuff than you think you know and that in the struggle between fact and fiction, what matters is authenticity instead of hard data, so, no, while you’ve never been in a laser battle with a cyborg orangutan that doesn’t mean you haven’t undergone battles like hey remember that time in 9th grade when you and Roger Tyvock got into that sissy-slap fight in Mr. Grabknuckle’s Phys-Ed class, so in other words, bring your real life human experience into your fictional storytelling and mostly you should be fine. And when that fails you, go fuck around on Wikipedia for 15 minutes. Close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades!”

But I guess that advice is too long to fit on a cross-stitch sampler.

(Related: “Write What You Know, Yes Or No“)

Adverbs Are Like Pus Globules Exuding From Satan’s Nipples

Yeah! Fuck adverbs! Fuck them lustily and fuckily in their ears! … oh, wait, I’m supposed to be playing Devil’s Advocate. Uhhh. Okay, listen, adverbs aren’t the bad guy, here. Writers who overuse adverbs are the bad guys. Adverbs are fine — ‘The toad hopped swiftly from plate to plate’ is a not unreasonable sentence, nor is it a sentence devoid of rhythm. But, ‘”Go eat a dick and die,” Tony said crankily’ feels clunky (he said, clunkily) and frankly, unnecessary. Adverbs are okay when they’re not redundant and when they don’t break rhythm. Keep them away from the word “said.”

Writers Must Be Voracious Readers: Bibliovores Say: “Nom Nom Nom”

Yes. But. But. This, like all things, demands balance. Lots of writers — like, say, Chaucer — used to struggle with the notion of whether it’s more important to go out and live a life and find stories out there or whether it’s more important to sit at home and read. Here’s a bold proclamation from the Luciferan Advocacy Council: it’s more important to go out and live your life. Books aren’t telling you new stories. They’re also not telling you your stories. I mean, sure, if you just want to retell everyone else’s stories, by all means, sit at home and read. Okay, settle down — I’m not saying don’t read. But you don’t need to be some kind of gibbering bibliophile buried under books to be a writer. Read what you love, then go out and live your life.

Open With A Bang Or The Reader Will Fall Asleep And Drool On Your Book

Here’s why this is nonsense. The Bestest Actionest Action Movie Of All Time, DIE HARD, does not open with a bang. It opens with a dude on a plane getting advice about his toes. You need to open with character awesomeness rather than event and explosions. Here’s why opening on a bang is dangerous: because it assumes action, and action only matters when we give a rat’s right foot about the characters involved. Now, you can create that kind of sympathy in that action scene, sure, but it’s tricky. Just make sure that the character is what’s getting the full attention in those opening moments. From the first sentence we need to care about the characters in any work — film, novel, game, pornography, pamphlet, placemat, what-have-you. Though, don’t take this as an excuse to write some boring-ass ponderous intro, either.

Skip The Boring Parts Because The Reader Is Like A Crack-Addicted Housecat

Well, it’s hard to disagree with this — would anybody say, “Leave the boring parts in?” Anybody who says that hates the audience. And anybody who hates the audience should have their nuts burned with lava.

The only trick here is judging which part of the work is boring. It’s hard. Don’t judge this in the first draft because in the first draft, you’re swirling down the drain in the hate spiral. You might hate something or find a piece boring that, frankly, is no such thing. Let a second read reveal that. Let editors reveal that. Let a hot cup of ayashuasca tea reveal that during intense hallucinations while also leading you on a jungle odyssey spirit quest where you eventually conquer and make love to the Jaguar Queen of Xibalba.

“Only Use The Word Said,” He Said

Yeah, mostly? I’d say, 90% “said,” 10% “some other entirely appropriate word.” I’ve gone with protested, asked, exclaimed, stammered. But you start wandering too far afield — “I love pie,” he ejaculated — and the reader’s just going to think you’re a weirdo.

Prologues? More Like “Prolapsed Anuses!” Am I Right? High-Five!

Ennnh. Eh. Okay, isn’t this just because a lot of prologues suck? That’s why the rule exists in the first damn place. Because mostly, they’re garbage. “Here’s 2000 words that don’t immediately relate to the next 2000 words until you realize that later I’ve connected them but that doesn’t happen until the end of the book and I am like the preening peacock, don’t you like my elegant plumage?” Prologues are often a case of stunting, or writers showing off, and that’s not that much fun for the audience.

But that’s not to say prologues automatically suck balls by dint of them being prologues. Or that you shouldn’t use them. One of my favorite books, LAMB (The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal) by Christopher Moore has a very short, simple, and hilarious prologue. It works in the context of the piece. That’s the key — does it work? Then use it. Does it not work? Well, duh. *smacks you in the chops* Then don’t use it. I’d say, don’t let a prologue be your default state. Write the book. If it needs a prologue, it will be revealed to you. Possibly in a dream after fornicating with the Jaguar Queen.

If You Touch A Thesaurus, You Will Get Monkey Gonorrhea

I fucking love the thesaurus. Not because I want to constantly look for the next ten-cent word but rather because my brain is total shit. I am constantly like, “What’s the word I’m looking for here? What is it? It’s a word, right? That means… this thing. I’m looking for a word about this thing.” Finally, my wife is like, “Taco?” And I’m like, “Yes! Taco! This is why I married you.”

Sometimes, you need the right word, and you have a word that’s close but not dead on, and so you go to the thesaurus. And you shouldn’t be punished for that. That’s just sad for you. And by you, I mean me.

Defeat Indefatigable Rules!

Hey. You. Yeah, you. Your turn. Lob up a classic chestnut of writing advice, and let’s see if we can’t all dismantle it with our cynical, skeptical knives. Slicey-slice! Dicey-dice! Chestnut salad!