I’ve seen several posts that have their list of things they consider bad writing advice, some of which I agree with and others I don’t.* Like most writers, I’ve received various bits of bad advice. Here are a few moments or pieces of advice that stand out most for me.
(PS. I did not intend this to be so dang long. Sorry.)
1. Forget King
Sitting in the college councilor’s office, a small cramps space with a too large desk covered in stacks of marked up pages, I asked about what it would take to major in Creative Writing. My transferring to the UC had complicated the matter, because some of the classes I took at community weren’t applicable at university.
The councilor told me about my options and asked, “Who are your favorite authors.”
I grinned and said, “Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and Stephen King.”**
She blinked and then wrote something down in her notes. “I wouldn’t mention that last one.”
I continued to smile and nodded, even though my skin went cold and embarrassment began to make me blush. It would be impossible for me to forget Stephen King as an influence on me as a reader and a writer. I spent too many hours in high school, curled up, pages deep in the blood drenched and horrifying worlds he created. Reading his books was like an obsession.
But the councilor’s message was clear: If you’re going to be a writer, you need to be a serious writer and read serious things.***
I remember walking out of that office feeling conflicted. Why shouldn’t I talk about something that meant so much to me?
The conclusion I came to — Screw it. My love of genre (scifi, fantasy, horror) ran deep, and I wasn’t going to let that go just because I was told it wasn’t good enough. I was going to write what I wanted to write.
Whether stories, poems, scripts, whatever, a writer usually writes their best when writing stories that mean something to them instead of trying to write what someone else thinks they should write.
My recommendation: Move toward your passion. Write what moves you to write.
(Ultimately, I did not get a degree in Creative Writing, though this was more due to time constraints than to my reaction to the councilor’s advice.)
2a. Join the Bandwagon
My dad has always been encouraging of my desire to be a writer, for which I’m grateful. However, he also comes at this encouragement from the perspective that I will eventually be a best selling author of the sort to be able to live in a giant mansion and buy my dad a Cessna airplane (he used to be a bush pilot in Alaska). Goddess love him, he wants his little girl to have oodles and oodles of money so she never has to worry every again.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that went something (sort of) like this:
Me: Yeah, so I’m working on this project that I’m really excited about! *describes story*
My Dad: That’s great! I love that idea! I’m so proud of you!
My Dad: But you know you should do is check out what these famous authors did. You know, Stephen Kind and James Patterson. Just copy what they do, and you’ll be able to make a lot of money.
Me: Um, it doesn’t work that way, dad. *tries to explain publishing* So, you see, only a tiny percentage of writers actually become rich and famous.
My Dad: Well, I don’t know about that. I know! How about you write a vampire novel! I know they’re really popular and you could sell a lot of books!
Me: That’s not going to happen, dad.
My Dad: Why not?
Me: Because, I don’t want to write a vampire novel. I don’t feel moved to write a vampire novel. When I do, I’ll write one, but right now? No. Nope. Not going to happen.
My Dad: But…
From there, the conversation would usually loop for a long while with the result that either I got frustrated or we both started laughing.
Doing what everyone else is doing will not guarantee fame or riches any more than writing what you love. Plus, it tends to lead toward weaker writing in my experience.
Creating stuff is hard work. Especially if there is not guarantee that there is a reward when you’re done making it. So, I figure, write what you’re dying to write, what’s overflowing from yourself, or simply what amuses you.
2b. Selling Out is Bad
On the opposite side of Bad Advice #2 is the concept that “selling out” and it being an evil, evil thing that only bad people do. This is based on the common idea that true artists are starving and/or suffering, and that artists or writers or musicians who make lots of money have sold their souls for profit, sending the quality of their works into the fiery pits of hell.
Most of which is hokum. This idea that artists and writers create work for the love and the love alone has also spawned a great number of people who believe artist and writers don’t need to be paid for their hard work.
And, as I mentioned in #2a, creating stuff is hard work.
It’s not always easy to get paid for that work for a whole lot of reasons, but there is nothing wrong with mild compromises, or taking jobs for the money, or doing what you need to do as a writer to keep going.
Making money is not a bad thing. In fact I like making money. It puts food on the table and lets me do things, like buy books and go to the movies.
(In fact, if Kim Kardashian were to walk up to me and offer to pay me thousands of dollars to ghost writer her memoir, I would do it in a heart beat.**** Because those bucks will help me pay bills and keep writing all the other things I love writing.)
The key, I believe, is to keep a balance from doing work that you love and find inspiring, while also obtaining an income that you and your loved ones can live off. (If you’re going to say that that’s easier said than done, I will agree with you. I’m still trying to get there myself.)
3. Almost Anything Involving the Word “Should”
(or “must” or “have to” or any variation that implies “this way is the only way”)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you declare yourself to be a writer, someone will tell you what you should be doing to be to be successful. Or at least, it’s something I’ve seen happen a lot to writers and have had happen to me.
Though, I admit that I have been guilty of offering this kind of advice. Once (or twice) during a Writing Gang meeting, I’ve thrown my hand in the air and said to my fellow comrade in writing, “Why aren’t you submitting your work? You should! You work is good! I insist you submit your work!”
But the thing is, she has no interest in submitting her work for professional publication. When another member of our group asked her when she was going to submit one of her novels, she said, “Never.”
What she’s done is self publish them online (you can find links on her GoodReads profile), and then spends exactly no time marketing them. She has no website, no blog, and does no self promotion. For her it seems, just writing the novels and posting them is what she wants. It makes her happy. Who am I to tell her she should do it any different?
Writing and developing a writing career is a strangely exploratory act. There is no clear map that can lead you from point A (beginning) to point B (success). No clear definition of what success even is.
For me, advice is great and wonderful. I’m happy to take in advice by the bucketfuls. I dig through it, sift it, and eventually through experimentation find something that works. At least for this story or this poem.
The next story or next poem might require a different method, the absorption of different advice.
Anyway, that’s it. Hopefully I didn’t accidentally slip in some bad advice while talking to you about bad advice. 😉
What advice have you received as a writer that you found to be bad or not work for you?
Good Reads: Deborah Lee Luskin gives some excellent advice about the importance of word order in her post, “The English Language On Word Order Depends.” Something I think every one forgets or mixes up and is good to be reminded of.
Call for Submissions: Kaleidoscope is an anthology of contemporary YA science fiction and fantasy with a focus on diverse perspectives. “We hope to fill with a variety of exciting tales, happy and sad, adventurous and meditative. We’re not simply looking for cookie-cutter vampire or urban fantasy stories, but for things that transport us and subvert our expectations.” Payment: 5 cents per word (USD). Deadline: Decemberr 31, 2013. Click for more info.
*In most cases, the advice isn’t necessarily “bad,” but tends to assume it is right in every case without taking into account that for every piece of advice that works wonderfully for the adviser, there is a writer out there who would offer the exact opposite advice. For example, “write everyday” is perfectly good advice; it works for many people. Except when it doesn’t; then, it becomes bad advice.
**This was my stock answer throughout much of college. Now, my current list looks of favorites would look quite different, and is actually be quite long. Toni Morrison is still a favorite, but Neil Gaiman now sits perched at the precarious top of that list. They are joined by Pablo Neruda, Charles de Lint, Ron Padgett, Jeff Smith, Ray Bradbury, Jane Austen, Mary Roach, and others.
***The believe that “literature” is better than genre is old and much debated. I don’t really want to get into that battle, since it seems pointless to me. Many works of what is considered literature are genius; many are also complete crap. Same goes for genre of all kinds.
****Plus, some dark part of my soul secretly want to find out what deep dark secrets she might have. What?
[This post was inspired The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge prompt “Dear Abby.”]