As a writer, I’m constantly seeking tips on how to create better characters, improve my settings, market my work and a billion other things I suck at. Some advice is great and finds its way into my special Writing Tips file folder – okay it’s not so much a file folder as it is papers scattered across my desk, Post-Its stuck in books I’m reading and articles torn from magazines left on the kitchen table. But, like a prospector panning for gold, I’ve had to sift through some real clunkers to get to the gold (there’s possibly a dung beetle analogy in there too, but I’m pressed for time today).
The following are a few of my favorite worst pieces of writing advice. (Don’t worry, I’m not going with the obvious “Write what you know” which is the pinnacle of stupid advice for any writing except maybe an interoffice memo.)
1. You don’t need to promote your work – I still can’t recall where I read this, but it has to be the most asinine advice ever. EVER. Unless you’re Stephen King who can write a book and have it become a best seller on his name alone, then you need to promote your book, yourself, your life (seriously, why else would I bother with this blog). I took this advice after writing the first edition of Easy Preserving. Granted the formatting for that original version was terrible, but I threw it out there with no Twitter mentions, no email newsletter, nada, zip, zilch. It sold about 3 copies…over 3 months. Um, yeah…so I revamped it, reformatted it, made a print copy, gave it its own webpage and all other types of promotion and, well sales aren’t phenomenal, but they’re now closer to 3 books a week, rather than 3 books a season. Better advice: Promote your book in anyway possible.
2. Write at the same time each day – I don’t know anyone whose life is so boring and predictable that they can write or do anything at the exact same time each day. I understand the point, sort of like taking your birth control pill at the same time each day, is to make a habit of the process, but taking a pill takes 5 seconds, writing takes time and you may not have that time every day at the same time every day. And you may not feel like writing at that time. Some days I’m raring to fill up page after page at 10am, other days, I don’t get around to the pen and paper until 2pm. Better advice: Try to make writing a habit, but don’t make it a chore. If you love it, you’ll do it. Oh, and don’t forget your birht control, babies are icky.
3. Get up out of your chair every two hours – Please, when I manage keep my ass in a chair for more than 30 minutes, all donkeys in the universe will become unicorns. I’m not very good at the sitting still thing (yeah, I’m that person on the plane). I don’t have ADD or anything, I just don’t like sitting. Plus, the cats are really demanding about wanting out, or in, or back out, or… I get this though, writing is a sedentary job, computer screens slowly kill your vision, you need to move. But really, if you’ve been sitting for two hours doing anything, get your ass up and go for a walk (disregard this if you’re in a wheelchair, I don’t want to seem insensitive). Better advice: You really should get up every hour to rest your eyes and stretch. Drinking coffee will ensure you get out of that chair!
4. Never use “was,” “had,” “went,” etc – No, you don’t want to fill your manuscript with passive verbs, but seriously, never? This advice is ridiculous and you’re going to sound like a pompous ass if every time you could simply say “was” or “had” you force yourself to use a more exciting verb. This also goes completely against the advice that you should use familiar, everyday words in your writing. I know it sounds super poetic to say “Her hair gleamed like the gold on a rapper’s tooth” but there is nothing wrong with saying “she had golden hair.” Also, you’re going to waste a lot of writing time flipping through the thesaurus if you expect to find the perfect verb every single freakin’ time you could use a plainer verb. Better advice: As long as you don’t overuse passive verbs, they are not going to kill puppies if you use them now and then.
5. Never have a character “cry” or “sob” and never use the word “tears” – Really? Is every character supposed to have a cyborg-like complacency toward super sad moments? Did someone forget to tell me that all characters must have their tear ducts removed? This goes completely against the “write what you know” advice that every (lame) writing teacher gives you. I know for a fact that people cry. Men cry, women cry, babies cry the minute they get on airplanes. Eyes could get moist with emotion, throats can choke with grief, rivulets of moisture can stream down cheeks, but it’s okay to say that eyes filled with tears, she sobbed, and the like. It happens, I’ve seen it (remember, my cat just died, sad times in the house recently). Better advice: Your characters aren’t always going to be strong, let them cry. It’s okay. There there. There there.
6. Write for free – Screw that. Yes, I write this blog for free, but not really. Secretly, it’s my devious way to suck you into my website where you’ll become so enthralled with my writing that you’ll want to buy all my books or hire me to write for your magazine/website. This advice is meant to tell you that you can write for free to show off your writing. My question: Why can’t you show off your writing AND get paid? I’ve done it for years. It’s not to say that some publisher won’t discover you by reading that obscure lit journal that published your short story or poem, but how often does that happen? Not very. Writing for pay forces you to work with editors, teaches you to write better and gets your name into higher circulation publications. And you get cash! Better advice: Put the effort in and get your work into magazines/sites that pay. If you want to show off your work for free, start a blog.
7. Expect writer’s block – No, expect to not feel like writing some days. I just don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s like Santa or the Easter Bunny – it doesn’t exist except in your own imagination (and worse yet, it doesn’t leave you candy or presents). Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, you should have a notebook full of ideas that you can turn to when you can’t think of what to write next. These ideas come from dreams, pop into your head while on a jog, arrive in a flash when watching the news. Ideas are everywhere. Personally, I would really like to stop the amount of ideas I have. If you are working on something and you say you have writer’s block, you lie. You’re just being lazy and don’t want to get started writing for the day. For me this often happens when it’s super sunny out and I’d rather be playing in the garden (how do people in sunny climates get any writing done?). Better advice: Don’t feel like writing? Do it anyway! That day’s writing may suck, in my case, generally the first paragraph or two on these days is terrible, but once I’ve started, it’s not so bad and the paragraphs improve, pages fill and suddenly I’m done for the day.
8. No simultaneous submissions – I laugh whenever I see this. Seriously, editors are super busy people and it can take weeks to months before you hear back on a query or book proposal, if ever. And in most cases you will be rejected (sorry, it’s the nature of the writing life). If you send to only one person at a time, you’re going to spend a long time getting published. You may have this image in your head of editors dining at a posh New York restaurant talking about a brilliant query they received and, oh, embarrassment of all embarrassments, they all are talking about the same query, but life is not a rom-com movie (if it was, I’d have sexier legs). Better advice: It’s okay, send out that query or proposal to more than one magazine or agent, they won’t know. There is a caveat to this advice though: Do not send the same query to agents in the same agency, to more than one magazine under the same publisher or to several small presses that are all offshoots of the same larger press. That’s just being dumb.
9. Writing can’t be taught – Boy, all those MFA programs in Creative Writing and How-To Write books must be feeling really foolish right about now. You can learn to write and the more you write, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll get. Looking back at some of my first articles compared to articles I write now, all I can say is, yes, you can learn. If you don’t improve your writing over time by taking (good) advice and practicing your craft, then you’re either super awesome to begin with (and I hate you) or you are a stubborn, know-it-all ass who probably talks a lot about writing but never gets any done. No, I don’t think you need a degree in writing to be a writer, but you do need to have a willingness to improve your writing through reading writing books and, above all, WRITING! Better advice: Never stop learning. Ever. Unless you’re dead, then it’s okay to stop…everything.
10. Write drunk – This is from Papa Hemingway. It worked for him, but so did violence against women. Don’t make it work for you (drinking while working or violence). If you’ve ever drunk dialed, written a drunken email, or sent a booze-induced text, you know you shouldn’t write under the influence. First off, alcohol (and some drugs) give you a feeling that you are super clever. This means, whatever you put on paper (or screen) will seem super fantabulous, the most brilliant thing you’ve ever come up with. Okay, now and then, it may be, but for the most part, it will be an incoherent crap stick. Second, you’re sitting on your ass and alcohol has a lot of calories and will make you fat. You want to look good for your book jacket photo don’t you? Third, if you drink while you’re writing, how do you celebrate when you’re done for the day? Fourth, if you spill your drink on your computer, you not only mess up your computer, but you waste booze (major crime). Better advice: Drink coffee, drink tea, drink water. Save the booze for celebrating a good day’s work.
Phew, there’s a lot of shitty advice out there. Basically, take the advice that works for you, not what someone else claims to be The Rules.
And now, for all you writers out there who, like me, enjoy writing on paper and reading paper books…a little something from me to you: