It’s important to know that no matter how obvious and sensible a piece of writing advice might be, there are always going to be circumstances when it won’t hold true. Or when there are other, equally effective ways to tell the story.
It’s all open to debate and depends on context and specific examples. An unmitigated disaster for one writer, may be an unqualified success in the hands of another.
It would be a lot simpler if there were solid, unquestionable, carved in stone rules that we could all learn and then go from there. So here are three universally true things that apply to all writers at all times in every situation (I am 1,000,000% not exaggerating for effect).
1. Turn off everything and sit down with pen and paper or at the computer and you will write something.
I mean turn off everything. Phones, internet, music (I know some people need music to write, but even you). No turning to books or magazines for inspiration. No distractions.
Will something come immediately? Probably not. Ideas to go do something else probably will. But if you stay where you are and don’t let your brain escape and just think about story ideas, they will come.
I’m not sure what the evolutionary advantage is in the brain trying to avoid doing the thing you want it to do (doesn’t seem very helpful) but you can overcome it just by putting bum in seat.
2. There are no essential scenes in your story.
You might prefer some scenes. You might have written the whole story purely because of one or two scenes that inspired you. But there is nothing in your story that you can’t replace with something as good or better.
That doesn’t mean you can just take a scene out and the story will still work. You have to come up with an alternative, and you have to spend enough time on it to make it good. But you have that ability.
The reason you might want to get rid of a great scene is this: when a story isn’t working, you may think you can change that or that, but you definitely can’t change THIS scene. This scene is pivotal to the whole thing.
No, it isn’t.
Sometimes a brilliant scene in a bunch of scenes that need to go, needs to go too.
Obviously you can write another equally great scene (you wrote the first one), but it’s hard work. Replacing bad scenes seems worth the effort, but a perfectly good scene?
You can still find ways to come up with a workaround that allows you to keep the scene, but it isn’t because you had no choice. There is always a choice, and often it’s reworking the ‘essential’ scene that frees up your approach to the rest of the story.
3. Nobody can make you change anything.
Okay, possibly this isn’t true if you’re signed up to a big publisher and they insist on changes or they’ll cancel your multi-million dollar contract. Although in that case I imagine you would just tell you agent to speak to his Mafia contacts to have a word (that’s how the publishing industry works, right?).
Whenever somebody reacts badly to a criticism of their work (and it’s usually criticism that’s been invited, making it even more absurd) the key thing to bear in mind is that the person who has any power in that relationship is the writer.
If I think every word of your hundred thousand word manuscript is an affront to human civilisation, I can do exactly nothing about it.
I can tell you how I feel, try to convince you to make changes, get other people to agree with me in an effort to psychologically browbeat you into submission, but in the end the only person who can physically change the words on the page is you. And if you decide not to, your vote wins.
I’m not saying you should be stubborn or listen to no one. Advice, even the wrong-headed kind, is worth hearing. If nothing else it can help clarify your thoughts. But you’re the undisputed monarch of this kingdom.
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