I’m trying something different out on the old blog today. Michael Haynes and I have exchanged blog posts, so you’ll be reading some excellent words of advice from him today in lieu of my usual rants and raves. Michael blogs at A Writing Blog and tweets at @mohio73. He’s been published in Kazka Press, Goldfish Grimm, and has work forthcoming from Nature, Ray Gun Revival, among other publications.
When you’re done here, check out my post on his blog about the drawbacks of comparing yourself to other writers. But now, let’s take a look at the subject of writing advice itself and how in the end, it’s all relative:
As a writer on the internet here in the early-21st century there’s no shortage of writing advice to be found. In fact, quite the opposite, there’s a mountain of advice out there. If you tried to read all of it, you wouldn’t have time to write. Seriously!
While picking your way through the advice you can come across some truly helpful information. There are web pages devoted to topics like understanding the (nowadays-slightly-less-standard) “standard” manuscript formatting for short fiction which are extremely valuable. You also will almost certainly eventually come across some bad advice, people who say that you should never-ever under any circumstance whatsoever write in the present tense or in the second person. (I’ve sold stories in both present tense and second person and came *thisclose* to selling a second-person present tense story to a major print publication. Close only counts in horseshoes? Bah.)
Here’s a hint: advice that says you should “never” do X or “always” do Y should raise your antennae just a bit. It’s often not as clear-cut as that. But not always.
The most troublesome class of writing advice, in my opinion, is writing process advice. Somewhat ironic that I say this, since a non-trivial amount lot of what I blog about is on just such topics. Writing process advice is not bad. It can be manna from heaven for the struggling writer. It can also be the death kneel to the hopes and dreams of a writer — even one who wasn’t struggling before.
Here’s why. Writing process advice, advice about “how” you actually do the act of getting words out of your brain and onto a page or a screen or a scrap of napkin… It’s almost entirely subjective. There really is almost no absolutely wrong way, or right way, to do it.
Take one of my favorite techniques. I write every day. It’s not always new fiction. I write blog posts, I’ve worked on some non-fiction projects, I even include the words I write for critiquing fellow writers’ stories as “writing” for these purposes. But one way or another, 500 words or more every day come out of my brain and into the world. I’ve done this for — well, this is a pleasant coincidence — exactly 250 days in a row now as of today, May 3rd. This comes after twenty-ish adult years of hardly ever writing after a childhood often spent writing. I am happy, some days ecstatic, about what I’ve accomplished. I fervently believe that if I hadn’t committed to writing every day that I would have lost momentum months ago, when I wasn’t getting any sales, or when one of various life catastrophes came around to sap my energy and my time.
And yet I know people who say that the “advice” to write every day, especially when offered as a dictum — “You must write every day or you’re not taking this seriously and have no hope of a real career as a writer” — has been oppressive to them. They’ve felt like they were a failure because there were days when the kids had the flu or they had the flu or they just could not find the energy, that day, for whatever reason to write.
Even if you take out the condescending crap from that last paragraph about not taking “it” seriously and just give the well-meaning advice “Write every day,” well, guess what? There are still going to be some people who find this a miserable way to write. They may want to blaze through 5000 words of writing over a weekend and then not write during the week. And that is awesome if it’s a way that’s letting them work towards their goals and feel good about their writing.
And that’s the nub of it. When you get down to the “how” of writing, I feel that every writer has to find their own way. They don’t have to do it in the dark. They can learn from others’ experiences and see if what’s worked for those writers can work for them.
And if it’s not working? Throw it out. There’s always another approach you can consider. Don’t be too hasty to give up on an approach which you initially find uncomfortable; sometimes there’s an adjustment period even for positive changes. But if it’s truly making you miserable then it’s time to move on to another approach.
Define your own goals; don’t let others define them for you. Be patient and open-minded as you develop the tool kit of approaches that lets you make progress you find satisfactory towards those goals.
Oh, and remember to breathe. Breathing’s good. Always.