Let’s talk about writing advice. Nowadays, telling someone not to follow writing advice is as cliché as the writing advice in question. Write what you know – but you can also write what you don’t know (it’s called imagination). Don’t use adverbs – unless they work for the story you’re telling. To make things worse, there are literally millions of “How-To” books out there (okay, not a million, but it feels that way) espousing the best way to write, most of which promise to help you write the next bestseller or be the next Stephen King. It’s all really very confusing.
It certainly doesn’t help that writers are a nervous bunch. Some might say that we lack self-esteem. Maybe we even lack basic confidence in our work. As such, we often just want someone to tell us that what we are writing is okay, that we meet the standard, that we’re not wasting our time and effort. We want someone to tell us how to be successful. So, we search for the writing advice, but we see the contradictions. Does writing advice work or doesn’t it?
Listen, I’m right there with you. I love a good How-To-Write book. I devour those little so-and-sos. I’ve read them all: Stephen King’s “On Writing”, Chuck Wendig’s ‘Damn Fine Story”, John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story”. All great books, all with different takes on the craft of writing. When I first started writing, I read those books looking for the quick fix; the one miracle answer to how to write well. The thing is, there’s no book out there that has the easy answer. Why? Because there isn’t an easy answer. Writing is work. It’s hard work that involves constant growth and improvement. So, I didn’t find the answer I was looking for, but I wrote anyway. I wrote to make myself better, but through that I found a few chinks in my armour; some things I could work on. I’m a pantser at heart. I come up with an idea and I write it, no preparation just writing. This has served me well... to an extent. To this day I can write a decent short story without an outline or guide, novels on the other hand.... Well, my first novel, The Starving, was written mostly by the seat of my pants. I had an idea, I had characters, and I knew where I wanted my story to begin and end. All I needed to do was make those two things meet. That’s easier said than done, however. After that book, I started to look specifically for books that could tell me how to plot, how to structure. I took a writing class that focused on a few different things, but included a trick to structuring a story. I focused on the advice that I wanted and sought it out. Was everything I found good? Nope. Did I apply some of what I read to my writing? Yup. Boom, just like that, I went in, found what I wanted, and was out again. Like a thief in the night.
Now, that I’ve come to that, here’s the thing about writing and writers. We’re thieves. We steal what we can and we make it our own. Think about your first writing project, probably in grade school right? Well, were you like me and ripped off R.L. Stine or Stephen King just to make your Halloween story creepy? Did you steal jokes you heard on the Simpsons and plug them in to a story about vampires just to get a laugh (I didn’t even get a chuckle)? Okay, so maybe not exactly those things, but you get my drift. We use examples of the writing we enjoy to frame how we will write. It’s not taboo (unless you blatantly steal sentences and content to make money), it’s just a way to learn. So yes, we’re thieves, but not horrible thieves. Maybe we’re more akin to Robin Hood: we steal from those rich with experience and supply it to the poor writers who need it (us).
So what does this have to do with writing advice? Well, it’s the same premise. We take the writing advice that works best for us and leave the rest behind. It’s as simple as that. To revisit my earlier question: Does writing advice work? Maybe. It depends on if you need it or not.
What I’m saying is: treat writing advice with a grain of salt, but don’t ignore it. In a wide stream of dos and don’ts there’s bound to be something there that ups your game, or that helps that light bulb go off over your head. Ding!
So, be Robin Hood. Poke around until you find what you want and then make yourself richer (better) because of it.
Jon Dobbin author, The Starving