This week’s topic in my accountability group’s HOW I WRITE series is “What are the top 5 best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve gotten so far?” Last week we posted our look back at our 2011 goals and how we’re moving forward in 2012. I took this week’s topic in a similar vein. What are some of the “RULES” of writing that have struck me as both the best and worst bits of advice out there. Of course, any advice if not understood will never be the best.
1. Write What You Know
Simple, yet brilliant! You won’t find advice much plainer than that. Could anyone ever write about things they don’t know?
Hold on, people do it all the time! Science Fiction and Fantasy couldn’t exist otherwise. We can also hope serial killer books aren’t autobiographical!
This advice is so vague it’s nearly meaningless. Many new writers aren’t likely to mentally add on phrases like “emotions you’ve experienced”, “people you’ve known”, “situations you’ve been in”, or even “environments you grew up in”, which is a much more useful way to think of it.
And don’t let that short list fool you! There are a kazillion things you could include, but a new writer in search of the magic formula may not recognize what’s left unsaid until much later, possibly not until after they’ve been rejected for the umpteenth time for doing exactly as they were told and cranked out another Mary Sue or Gary Stu navel-gazer while muttering, “But it’s all I KNOW!”
So sit down and brainstorm a list of things you know and have experienced. Dig deeper. Don’t go for superficial stuff like how to do your day job. That might come in handy, but the characters and stories are far more interesting. Dig deeper. Reach deep down and pull up everything you love to remember. Then dive into those dark corners where the things you hate to relive lurk. Dredge it all up. Those raw emotions are what make characters come alive on a page, whether they’re human, alien, anthropomorphized woodland critters or whatnot.
Want plausibility and credibility? Dig deep and show us what you know.
Another tidbit here is, don’t throw around what you do know so it feels like a lecture or worse. What you know should support, embellish and enrich your story, never weigh it down, jump out at or patronize the reader.
2. GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict
I recently won a copy of Deb Dixon’s GMC book and this commentary isn’t really about her work as written, but more about how her acronym is proselytized on the streets of Writersville.
Many new writers ask for plot advice and get handed three letters: G, M, and C. If they’re lucky, they’ll get told what they stand for as well. Everyone always emphasizes knowing the GMC for your characters, but rarely explain why or how to use them to your story’s benefit.
Do yourself a favor, get your info from the source! No three letters encapsulate your magic pill. Even once you know what they stand for and how to use them to your advantage, they’re just another tool in your writer’s toolkit. A screwdriver isn’t the right tool for every job.
3. Start The Story As Late As Possible
This one refers to where to start your story along with the familiar refrains like “Start in the middle of the action!” and “Start right before a significant point of change for your main character!”
All good, and sometimes taken to extremes by the true believers who really DO want to be helpful, but if it doesn’t MEAN anything to you, it’s not very helpful. You may not know exactly what that point is yet. It’s ok to feel your way along when you’re just starting out. Many published authors have said they write the first five chapters and throw the first two or three out in their edits. Some others argue, you have to know how the book ends before you can properly write the opening. The important things are “starting it” and “finishing it”! Once it’s down on the page, THEN you can fix it. Which brings me to the next piece of advice.
4. You Can’t Fix a Blank Page
Ahh… La Nora speaks. And she’s absolutely correct. You can’t fix anything that’s not written down. Does knowing that help? Does repeating it as a mantra help you get words on the page? Me either. Maybe it’s one of those paradoxical truisms, where the more you repeat it, the more likely you’ll be doomed to experience it.
I’m all for “giving yourself permission to write a crappy first draft” and “good writing is really rewriting”, but just adding to the performance pressure of getting what’s in my head onto the page by pointing out the fact that I don’t have any words down yet really kills those creative juices.
So write that crappy draft. All. The. Way. Through. Discover what the story wants to be about before you stop it dead in its tracks by questioning it or worse forcing it into becoming something it’s not.
Does this mean pantsing is the right way to do it? Not if it doesn’t work for you! I’m in awe of people who can write that way, but plotting is an equally valid approach as long as you get past plotting and get down to writing. Otherwise all you have is a colorful stack of note cards, a pretty collage or a spreadsheet with lots of blocks filled in and still no story.
Trust me, people, I speak from experience here.
5. ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’
Stephen King is the master, therefore if he says it, we must be taken to extremes! “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” means we must never be nice?
That faulty logic is why I’m against anything artistic stated as an absolute. Adverbs weaken verbs, but some are necessary. Inexperienced writers can take simple boundaries and fashion them into straightjackets.
My music theory professor always said “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” Yep, goes right up there beside the “There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
There are rules. There are guidelines. And there are things that work or don’t. Writers SHOULD know how to effectively use words. Writers need a common language to critique and improve their art. You should be able to not only hear what works and what doesn’t, but describe why it does or doesn’t for you.
It also helps reduce confusion or talking at cross purposes with other readers and writers. Must you know what your 3rd grade teacher insisted you memorize for your grammar test? Pffft. Use what works for your style, voice and story. Will it always work? Maybe, maybe not, but just because someone said “Delete every adjective, adverb, and instance of ‘was’ and ‘had’, doesn’t mean they are correct or you’ll be kicked out of Writerville if you use them effectively. Check what you enjoy reading. Betcha anything those authors break “The Rules.”
YOUR TURN: What is the best or worst piece of creative advice you’ve ever heard, and why?
And if you’d like to read about what the rest of my group considers good &/or bad writing advice, you can find their blogs here: