25 Things You Should Know About Writing Advice
It’s NaNoWriMo time.
That means you’re going to be absorbing what might be a metric fuck-dumpster full of writing advice into your daily writing regimen — at least, I assume so, given the way my looky-loos here spike through the roof and launch high up into the night-time sky.
Writing advice and writing chatter is — well, it’s a good thing, from my perspective, but only to a point. And so it seems proper to jump into the month with a look at 25 things you should know (i.e. these are the things that I think) about writing advice. Please to enjoy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing advice, too. Where you go to get it, what you think of it, what kinds of advice you seek, whether you think it’s all bullshit, etc. The comments section awaits your tickling touch.
1. It’s Just Advice
Let’s say you’re trying to get to Big Dan Don’s Dildo Emporium in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I might give you directions and say, “You want to take I-81, but if you’re going around noon, that’s when Big Dan Don holds his Mega Noon-Time Dildo Sale, and traffic gets backed up, so you might want to take the Old Fuzzknuckle Road.” And you might say, “Thanks,” and do that thing, or you might say, “Thanks,” and do something entirely different. That’s the deal with writing advice. Someone is offering you advice. That’s it. Nobody’s handing you a book of laws. Nobody’s beating you about the head and neck with gospel (though they may think that’s what they’re doing). Writing advice proffered is just advice on one way to go with your writing.
2. Put Differently, It Ain’t Math, Motherfuckers
Writing advice is not the product of an equation. “If you do X, then Y will occur” is false in this instance. “If you name a character John Q. Hymenbreaker, your book will be an instant bestseller” is crazy-talk. Writing advice is not about providing certifiable answers. It is about making suggestions.
3. Tools In A Toolbox
Put differently a third time, I like to use the metaphor (mis-typed as “meataphor”) of tools in a toolbox. Every contractor job requires a different tool-set. Today you need a hammer. Tomorrow you need a pipe wrench. The day after you’ll need a high-powered drill-dildo (“drilldo”) from Big Dan Don’s. You’ve got to pick up each tool — i.e. each piece of advice — and weigh it in your hand. Debate its merits. See if it’s going to help you do the job or just get in the way and club you in the nuts.
4. The Only Inviolable Precept
In my mind, only one inviolable precept exists in terms of being a successful writer: you have to write. The unspoken sub-laws of that one precept are: to write, you must start writing and then finish writing. And then, most likely, start writing all over again because this writing “thing” is one long and endless ride on a really weird (but pretty awesome) carousel. Cue the calliope music.
5. The Almost-Inviolables
I should say it upfront: I find the word “inviolable” fun to say. It makes my mouth have fun! Hee hee hee, ha ha ha! Ahem. Right. Some other rules are perhaps worth putting in the “usually true but not necessarily” camp: writers read, writers write every day, read your work out loud, writers should draw on their own lives, if you don’t have caffeine and/or alcohol in your life you will explode and die, etc. But even these aren’t universally proven.
6. Question The Chestnuts
Chestnuts: the new name for boobs? No. No. Why would you even say that? Get your mind out of the gutter. No, by “chestnuts” I mean, “those old pieces of writing advice that you hear as common refrain.” Write what you know. Adverbs give Baby Jesus hemorrhoids. If you write a prologue, an orphan loses his sight. All the “old saws” need to be put on the chopping block.
7. Fuck It, Challenge All Advice
What I’m trying to say is, don’t assume any one piece of writing advice is etched in stone with the whetted bones of your ancestors. Challenge all advice. Try it out. See what flies and what dies.
8. No Such Thing As “Bad” Writing Advice
Okay, fine, some writing advice might be bad (“Staple your manuscript to a starving pony and drop it from a helicopter onto any potential literary agents”), but for the most part, writing advice falls into two categories: “Writing advice I can use,” and “Writing advice that doesn’t work for me.” That’s it.
9. Writing Is A Craft And Craft Can Be Taught
It’s way too easy to say that “all you need to do to learn writing is write and read.” Sure, at the deepest molten core of the thing, that’s totally rock solid. But it also sells this writing thing way short and makes it sound like it’s as easy as fucking Skee-Ball. “Just throw the ball enough times and you’ll learn how to get the big tickets!” Writing has endless fiddly bits and is an ever-evolving practice — it’s a craft, by golly, and it uses language to tell story. That means there’s a lot to know and an unforgiving dumpsterload of questions potential authors have. That’s why writing advice is valuable to some people.
10. What Do You Think Teachers Teach, Anyway?
English teachers? Communication and journalism teachers? Writing teachers? What the heck do you think these people teach? Surfing? Trigonometry? How to properly apply chapstick? They teach writing advice. (And, by the way, therein lies a subtle notion that what they teach is valuable, but by calling it advice, I’m also suggesting it’s not inviolable. You dig?)
11. We’re All Sucking At The Teat
Every writer has partaken of the sweet teat-meats of writing advice. If they tell you different, they’re a lying-faced liar whose pants are totally on fire — whether they take a note from an agent, an editor, a friend, a fellow writer, whatever, they’ve utilized the essence of writerly advice.
12. The DNA Of Writing Advice Hides On The Bedsheets Of Every Story
Here’s another way we’ve all supped at the soup-bowl of writing advice: if you’ve ever read a story and then you took a lesson from that story and applied it to your own, you took writing advice. Because encoded in every story are the lessons that storyteller has learned. Each story is a memetic blueprint for how that author tells the tale. For good or ill, for better or worse. Take something — anything! — from that and that’s a lesson learned, folks.
13. My Work Is The Product Of Reading Writing Advice
My writing — which, for all I know, you think is a smoldering shitwagon of inelegant word-rape — comes to you because of (and in some cases, in spite of) writing advice. I’ve a small shelf of writing advice that I hold dear and I also look back and look upon many writing teachers, mentors and acquaintances who have taught me colon-loads of critical information. And, frankly, who continue to teach me. I’m humbled by that and it’s why I don’t think the practice of providing or reading writing advice is bullshit.
14. Can Be Both Pragmatic And Philosophical
For me, writing advice takes on two faces: first, pragmatic. Pragmatic advice is the day-to-day inkmonkey shit, the “digging trenches” stuff. Here’s how a query letter looks, here’s an exercise to shatter the skull of writer’s block, here’s the problem with your addictive misuse of commas, and so forth. Philosophical writing advice talks about larger issues and questions and talks as much about being a writer as it does about writing itself.
15. A Third Axis: The Professional
A perpendicular in-road to this is that some advice is about writing, and other snidbits are about professional writing — professional writing tends to follow a course detailing how to get published, how to get paid. Here it tends to get a little more strict (the crack of the bullwhip stinging against your tender pink buttocks!) because here certain things remain truer than others. How you deal with agents, how you format a manuscript, what kinds of caffeinated bacon-and-chocolate products will soothe a deranged editor.
16. The Fourth “P”
No, not “golden showers.” Zip it up, piss-boy. I’m talking about “Personal.” Nearly all bits of writing advice are personal. That’s what I do here. It’s me yelling at me first and foremost, espousing my own lessons, exposing my own fears, ripping the scales of my eyes before yours. Advice like this should be personal — it should be the writer saying, “I took this path, maybe you want to, as well. Then again, maybe you don’t, and that’s fine, no skin off my back, I’ll just wander the desert alone, drinking my own lonesome tears to survive YOU MONSTER.”
17. We Need To Talk About What We Do Or We’ll Go Nuts
Writers are goofy-headed moon-units. Total fuckbrains, each and every one of us. Many writers are quite nice. But most are crazy, at least in their own special ways. As such, we’re driven to talk about what we do because — well, it’s what we do. Writers sit by themselves all day, sobbing and drinking vodka and pounding out imaginary bullshit for hours heaped on hours, and so sometimes we like to emerge from our foul-smelling caves and join the communal penmonkey water cooler and talk about what we do. Some don’t like to talk about it, and that’s all good. But many do. And many must.
18. Beware Its Hypnotic Swirl
Writing advice can very well be just another distraction. It can be a waste of time that feels productive — after all, you’re learning! You’re exploring! You’re thinking heavy thoughts critically. Blah blah blah, snargh, poop noise. Whatever helps you sleep at night, slugabed. Truth is, writing advice can be just another slurping time suck stopping you from doing that thing you’re supposed to be doing. What was it, again? OH YEAH WRITING.
19. The Time For Testing Is Complete
Here’s how you make hay from writing advice: you put it into play. Take a thing you just learned, and go use it. Try it out! Write your next thing and see if this tip, trick or technique holds any weight at all. And if it doesn’t? Chuck it into the garbage disposal and listen to it scream as the blades crush its tiny pinbones. Writing advice is fucking worthless unless it actually helps you write better or write more.
20. As Always, Beware Zealots, Fundies, Cult Leaders, And Fevered Egos
The Internet is positively cancerous with the self-righteous, and I have at times counted myself woefully among them — but here, come close, let me whisper this in your ear (ignore my tongue planting my little Wendigo Egg-Babies into your brain) so it’s clear: nobody has answers. They just have suggestions. Guidance. Possibilities. Nobody has a hard and firm answer. Like I said: this ain’t math, son. Those who tell you that it’s their way or the highway are usually selling something. And while I am, admittedly, sometimes selling something, I don’t know any more about writing than countless other writers. I just have thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and you should always be free to take them into your mouth, swirl them around, then choose whether or not to spit or swallow.
21. Why I Do It
I first started talking about writing because, like I said: we have to. It’s like I got a head full of hornets jacked up on trucker meth and they need to get out somehow. It was me talking to me — or, as I’ve said in the past, me talking to my stupid dick-brained 18-year-old self who thought he could get away with a hundred bad habits and be successful (he couldn’t). It has since evolved, though, this thing I do here, because over time I started getting emails or tweets. I get a few a week, sometimes several in a day, and it’s someone telling me that I helped them — maybe to get back into writing, maybe to solve a problem they were having with a story, maybe even to get published. And it’s like — oh. Ohhh. That’s awesome. I’m not so self-important to say they couldn’t have done it without me — please. They could’ve, totally, and probably would’ve. Just the same, I’m honored and happy and positively tumescent to have many contributed in some small way to the ways of other penmonkeys.
22. Evolution From Pen-Monkey To Pen-Neanderthal
Writing advice is allowed to change because writers are allowed to change. Once you absorb a piece of advice, it’s not like you’re growing a tail or a new dick — it’s just an idea. Ideas can change. Don’t be afraid to evolve.
23. On Publishing Advice
Publishing advice is, as noted, its very own sub-species of writing advice. It’s not bad to read it and you’ll find lots of variant opinions on the subject. Just know that Tobias Buckell said it best, and I’m going to paraphrase him here: you can control your writing, but you can’t control the publishing industry, so control what you can control and leave the rest to fate. Stop obsessing about it. I’ll take it one step further to say, you can control your publishing strategy, and that’s it. All advice in this regard is about you figuring out your angle — not the angle of others, not the Prognosticated Fate Of All Publishing Ever. Though, just in case, here: sift through these bird guts, see if you can divine some answers.
24. Life Provides Its Own Kind Of Advice
Yes, you need to write a lot. And sure, you need to read a lot. But those things are regurgitative: it’s just you puking from one mouth to another and back again. Digesting pop or literary culture and then throwing it back up does little for your work — what will elevate your work and make it your own is to live life. Learn from your existence and borrow things from your day to day. Have adventures. Take risks. Put yourself into your fiction. Because life offers a kind of writing advice you just can’t read about — it’s something only you can experience. Like dropping acid and fighting your totem animal for control over the little man that pilots you.
25. Every Monkey Constructs His Own Pen
The story goes that every Jedi constructs his own lightsaber, and every penmonkey constructs his own pen. Meaning, we all find our own way through this crazy tangle of possibility. This isn’t an art, a craft, a career, or an obsession that comes with easy answers and isn’t given over to bullshit dichotomies. We do what we do in the way we do it and hope it’s right. Read advice. Weigh it in your hand and determine its value. But at the end of the day — and at the start of it — what you should be doing is writing. Because thinking about writing and talking about writing just plain isn’t writing.
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING