An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice
Writing advice is a little bit silly, as I’ve noted many times in the past. (Other times, I’ve put it differently: writing advice is bullshit.) It’s silly not because it’s fails to at times be useful, but because we expect it to be useful, we demand that it be rigorously true as opposed to, y’know, the opinion of some vaguely-experienced rando. Hell, Stephen King is an astonishing, terrifying force of wordsmithy, and On Writing remains one of the greatest writing books ever written — just the same, I don’t do what King does. I couldn’t. Because I’m not Stephen King. I love his book because it makes me challenge my own process and, at the same time, confirm my own process by proxy. Writing advice is not a treasure map with a chest of gold under a big red ‘X’ — it’s less recipe for success and more menu of food items you find may suit you.
I offer a lot of flim-flam shim-sham about writing and storytelling mostly because I want exactly that — I want to challenge you, I want to offer you possibilities, I want to once in a while make you think about something in your own work you hadn’t thought of before now. That’s it. No recipe. No secret handshake. No ancient occult ritual.
I mean, there is one, of course, but you only learn that after you publish five books, and then the Dread Angel Golzirath will darken your door with a fruit basket full of demon bezoars and an old VHS copy of Ghoulies, and then —
Well, I don’t want to spoil it.
The ritual or the movie.
(But be on the look out for Toilet Ghoulie. So cute!)
Regardless, just as one’s writing evolves over time, so too does the advice one might give around that process — and I thought what might be an interesting thing would be to offer a look at some more unconventional pieces of advice. Things you may not hear too often, some slightly more controversial chestnuts of wisdom — or, perhaps anti-chestnuts, which taste a great deal like the grief of a hungover party clown.
Here, then, are some of these nuggets of dubious wisdom. As with all such things, feel free to pick them up, regard them, wiggle your tongue over their crannies to determine if their taste is pleasing to you, and then consume or discard at your earliest convenience.
1. Fuck Your Critique Groups
I don’t mean that in the sexy verb way, but more in the way of wielding your disdain like a weapon. I mean that your critique group might be doing you more harm than good.
Maybe that’s not true. Maybe your writing group is amazing.
Yay. Good. Woo. *confetti erupts from exploding ponies*
But I present you with this to consider:
I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.
No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there — it’s purely a thing with me where, mostly, Tolkien isn’t something I want to read. I’d rather eat wallpaper. It’d be faster and less dry. I like the movies, not the books. The end.
Now, I want you to imagine that Tolkien had a writer’s critique group, and I was in it, and I brought my nonsense opinion to that group. I planted that seed in his head — “Maybe this isn’t that good? Maybe I’ve gone on too long. Maybe I’m a hack. Fuck hobbits. Fuck them right in their hobbit holes. I will instead go and be an actuarial analyst in Manchester, good night.” That is, of course, an extreme view of what might’ve come out of that, but what I’m saying is, who gives a shit what I think? I’m not important. I shouldn’t matter to Tolkien’s work or process. And yet, if I have a voice during his early processes, maybe I would’ve derailed him. Maybe I would’ve changed the work for the worse. Instead of going back in time to chuck Baby Hitler in a well somewhere, I’d be going back in time to fuck up Lord of the Rings.
I’m not an editor. I have editorial skills that I weaponize against myself, but I shouldn’t apply them to you. I can tell you how to use a comma and how to make a sentence more clear, but I shouldn’t be imprinting upon you stylistically. And that’s chiefly the problem with a lot of critique groups — they understandably comprise writers, not editors. Their opinions on work are driven from the question of, how would I write this? which is analogous to changing how you have sex because some other weirdo gets off on different peccadillos. Not to say you cannot explore new things, but just because That Guy Over There digs sticking egg whisks up his ass doesn’t mean you need to change your own bedroom voodoo. Nor does it mean he should stop sticking egg whisks up his ass just because you’re not into it.
(For real though, please don’t stick an egg whisk up your nethermost hole. I mean, I guess as long as you don’t go in whisk-end first, you might be okay, but I don’t want to be responsible for your hospital bills or lost kitchen implements.)
Critique groups can be less than ideal. You get a bunch of writers together to explicitly pick apart one another’s work, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to end up with something better, but you damn sure might end up with something routinely not you. And the opposite can be true, too — they might all love what you wrote, despite the fact that the thing you wrote needs serious work. This is complicated further by social biases: friends don’t want to hurt friends, so maybe they withhold honesty or literally don’t see the problem. Friends also might unconsciously want to hurt friends because, well, we’re a bundle of terrible complexities and maybe there’s some jealousy involved or some kind of unperceived resentment, oh no. Plus, a critique group sometimes feels obligated to find problems just to make use of themselves, which means they’re inventing problems rather than highlighting existing problems, and you might feel obligated to make changes because you don’t want to be rude — but maybe you have your own resentments and disregard good edits because of them, and, and, and…
It’s just not ideal. It certainly can be, with the right group. But writers, again, are not editors. It can be dangerous when we treat them as such. And I’ve heard some horror stories of people who went along for far too long with a bad group, not really realizing that the group had gone toxic on them. At which time, it was too late.
So, if you’re going to use a critique group, or beta readers, make sure you’ve established a strong bedrock foundation of unshakable trust. Sure, yes, kill your darlings, but also know which hills are yours to die upon.
2. Write You Up Some Fan Fiction
Let’s get this out of the way first: stow your haughty elitism about fan-fic. Just shove it into what dark, fetid Opinion Hole exists within you, the one where you keep all your Bad Opinions. Stick it there, seal it shut with a pancake of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and shush.
Let’s also get this out of the way:
I don’t write fan-fic, presently.
I used to! I was part of a group in high school where we passed around a notebook that mashed up a mighty tangle of pop culture properties, from Star Wars to Ultima. It probably wasn’t good. But it was fun. And I can legit say I learned not only how to write, but also how to write for an audience — because the audience was the other writers.
But I don’t do it anymore, and I’m sure someone here will say, But har-har, don’t you write Star Wars books, and isn’t that just fan-fic, and I mean, I guess if you really wanna call it that, whatever. I like to think that once a thing becomes canon, it’s not fan-fic because I’m not operating as a fan but rather as a Licensed Canon Wizard, where anything I say becomes automagically canon. Like, here, look:
Darth Vader is actually a stack of eight porgs in robot armor.
It overwrites all the other canon. It’s real. It’s truth.
It’s just not fan-fic. But to be clear, that’s not a knock against fan-fic.
I was at NYCC this past weekend, and I had discussions with a handful of professional, even full-time writers — and I discovered that they still write fan-fiction. Like, we’re talking unpaid fics across various fandoms, some popular, many obscure. And my first reaction to this is quizzical bemusement, like, wait, what? You write fan-fiction even now? And nobody pays you for it? You just do it? Because you love it?
And then it’s like, oh my god, of course you do. Because you love it.
They said: it’s fun. It reminds them sometimes that “writing is play.” (I’d quote the authors specifically to give them credit, but I don’t want to out private conversations.) And sometimes I think we get so focused on writing as craft we forget the play component. Writing fan-fic might actually return you to that, and that’s pretty amazing. (Further, they said sometimes things they wrote in fan-fic became something they could then tweak and use later in pro-work. So it’s also not useless from a craft standpoint, either.)
Brilliant. Amazing. Yes!
So, fuck it. Go write fan-fic. And if not that specifically, find time to write in a way where it’s fun, where it’s play, where it’s not you worrying about the market or a pay rate or what an editor is going to say. Find a sandbox, yours or someone else’s, and get dirty.
3. Read Less Fiction
Unconventional advice, maybe. Controversial, probably.
It’s funny, though, because I hear a lot of authors-of-fiction say that they don’t read much fiction these days — and, honestly, I read a whole lot less, too. Sometimes people jump their shit about that, because one of the supposed cornerstones of writing is, read more books. Which, while true, do those books always have to be fiction?
I say nay, they do not.
I read a lot of non-fiction for a few key reasons:
a) I don’t like to read too much fiction when I’m writing fiction, but I’m pretty much always writing fiction
b) Like a stage magician, I start to see through the tricks and the illusions, so it gets harder to read a book and really enjoy it
c) Reading your novel gives me your ideas, but reading a non-fiction book gives me new ideas that are all mine, mine, mine, and I’d rather not be part of some long human centipede chain of genre-reconsumption
If you want to strengthen your writing, I say, read fewer novels. Especially novels in the genre in which you tend to write. Read information. Read ideas. Read poetry. Read some classics. Read comic books and comic strips. Read cereal boxes, and the clouds, and the secret message I’ve stitched into your Tuesday underpants, and okay I think you grok my point.
4. If You Do Read Fiction, Dissect It Like A Frog In Biology Class
Did you dissect frogs in biology class? In AP Bio, they dissected cats. Cats. Not the Broadway musical, either, but actual cats.
They probably don’t do that anymore.
Anyway, the point is this:
When you do read fiction, destroy it.
Not literally. Put out the fire, Prince Zuko.
What I mean is, pick it apart. Not necessarily in a critical, I’M FINDING ALL THE BAD STUFF way. Rather, ask yourself, how does the author achieve what she’s achieving? What are her tricks? You can find the places where those tricks fail, sure, and you should also find where — and how — they work.
Which leads me to —
5. You’re A Manipulative Monster, So Might As Well Roll In It Like A Dog Relishing The Stink Of A Dead Gopher
I did not realize early on in my writing that I was a bad person.
Not a bad person, I hope, to the rest of the world. But to my characters.
And, really, to my readers.
Because a good author is a manipulative motherfucker.
Look at it this way: if you were designing a roller coaster, it would be perfectly in-character of you, the Amusement Architect, to say, “This is where I want the riders to have their sphincters clench up so hard it could bend rebar, and the next hill is where I want them to pee themselves. And not like, a little bit, but a khaki-soaker where they release all the urine they have.”
And so it is that you, as the author, are perfectly within your rights to say:
“I want the reader to be sad here, in this part. Right fucking here. Poke, poke, poke. I want to — I need to — make them sad. Then I want them to get mad. Then I want to make them happy again, at least for a little while, before I ruin half of their happiness with a hard choice and a complex ending.”
You are attempting to engineer how they feel.
Which is really, really manipulative.
You want them to laugh. To cringe. To cry. To cheer.
And you try to pull the puppet strings to make that happen.
Sometimes you’re successful, sometimes you’re not, but it’s worth highlighting this not as a thing outside your control, and certainly not as a thing that is pure happenstance — it is something you should endeavor very much to articulate and then orchestrate.
Where do you want them to hurt?
How do you want them to heal?
Read the work and ask yourself:
What reaction do you want them to have? How do you engineer that? How can you manipulate them into feeling that way? The very best authors hide this manipulation behind the workings of prose and character — it’s not bold-faced, it’s not obvious. Like every good haunted house, all the mechanisms are in the dark, behind the curtains.
6. Learn Random Shit, Go Random Places, Try New Things
That pretty much says it all, but to unpack it a bit: travel, do things, learn things, embrace experiences you have not yet had, even if they’re not always good ones. Live life. So much of fiction is about filling the tanks for fiction, and so much of that is Doing Different Stuff. I don’t mean to suggest you need to have buckets of money to travel to distant lands — like, if you’ve never driven three towns over, go do it. If you’ve never gone fishing, go fishing. Eat a bug. Climb a tree. Stick an egg-beater up your — wait, no, we decided that wasn’t a thing to do. Change your perspective. Add to the list of things you truly feel comfortable writing about. No, you don’t need to always write what you know, but the things that you know — or better stated, that you have experienced — will be things you will want to write about.
7. Stress Test Your Process
The best thing you can do for yourself is to find your process.
My process is not your process. It’s why any writing advice that gurgles up out of my lips should be immediately suspect — I’m telling you what I do, and what I do is not at all what you do. I lube my fingers up with scented unguents and then quaff a mix of Red Bull and spider venom. You sip tea noisily and write bestsellers while riding on the back of a gentlemanly and gently ambling dromedary camel. I’m not you. You’re not me. Neither of us are Stephen King no matter how often we try to switch bodies with him.
You need to find your process.
And the best thing you can do for finding your process is to never be entirely sure that you’ve found your process.
Because once you’re sure, once you’re really for real sure that you’ve figured it out, you’ve closed yourself to change.
I’ve changed my process subtly over time. Sometimes by necessity. Sometimes because I hear how another writer does it and it’s a thing that sounds like it might work for me.
Sometimes the changes aren’t subtle. For instance, I used to never, ever, ever go back and edit the story while writing the story. Now, though, I do that. I don’t do it much, and I don’t do it far, but every day, before I start writing, I go back and I re-read the previous day’s work — and I spend a little time tinkering with it. Fiddling with the dials, jiggering some levers, that kind of thing. It reminds me where I was, and gives me a sense of once again immersing myself in the flow of the work.
I used to write at night.
Now I write in the morning.
One day maybe I won’t drink coffee when I’m writiAHHH haha ha yeah no of course I’m going to keep drinking coffee YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND GET YOUR NASTY HANDS OFF MY BLACK DEVIL’S BREW YOU GODLESS TRAITOR
Ahem, ha ha, oh, whoa, that went off the rails there.
But seriously if you touch my coffee you’ll reel back a stump.
Point is, sometimes you need to change your process. I’m fond of telling the story of how it took me five years to essentially fail to write the novel Blackbirds, and how learning how to write it essentially came down to learning how to outline the damn book. And there I became a pantser-by-heart, plotter-by-necessity. And some writers hear that lesson and they take the lesson to be: “I need to outline.”
But the lesson was actually, I needed to change my process.
I had a process that wasn’t working.
And so I had to change it.
We become so sure of our process that we refuse to budge from it. And sometimes it’s worth changing your process — or testing it, at least — even when you think it’s working, because maybe it’s not working optimally.
Fiddle with the dials.
Jigger the levers.
Stick the egg-beater up your — well, you know.
Change your process. A little here. A lot there.
Whatever makes the work better.
Whatever makes you better.
So now, I ask you for your input —
What’s a piece of unconventional writing advice you’ve found helpful?
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
(See me, Kevin Hearne, and Fran Wilde on 10/17 in San Francisco, 10/18 in Portland, and 10/19 in Seattle. Details here!)