Monday, 5 May 2014

Digging for Writing Advice Gold

Advice, for writing and for everything else, is situational. In some cases it applies, in some it doesn’t.

When a concisely phrased suggestion fits perfectly with what you’ve been trying to work out it can be mind-blowing. Everything suddenly slots into place. You know exactly what you need to do. Not only does it seem to give you the answer to the problem at hand, it can change the way you look at the world in general.

But advice, no matter how apropos, never applies to everything. The camera never lies, love conquers all, honesty is the best policy, they all have their exceptions and so does every other piece of wisdom.

When it comes to writing, most advice comes with an example that seemingly proves the point. A famous novelist, a best-selling book, a well-know quote will solidify the recommendation. This is how you do it, look how well it worked for others.

But you don’t have to write every day. Putting in 10,000 hours won’t automatically make you an expert. Doing what you love doesn’t always make you happy. These things can and do help, but they are never the sole reason for success. And in some cases they can actually make things worse.

Writing every day can easily lead to burn out.

The 10,000 hours rule is just another way of saying practice makes perfect, and not a guarantee of stardom.

Turning your passion into your job can rob you of your love for it.

That’s not to say these things won’t help you become a better writer—at certain stages on the path to becoming a published author a change in focus and approach can help push you onto the next level—but there are no secret methods for turning lead into gold.

You have to dig up your own gold ore and then you can figure out how to refine it for yourself or you can look around to see how others approach the refining process. But that initial lump of rock with bits of gold in it, that has to come from you.

If what you’ve dreamed up is interesting to enough people it doesn’t have to follow any particular template in order to become successful. There are plenty of examples of blockbusting books that are widely mocked and derided for being not very good. Doesn’t stop them from selling.

Equally, a dull or uninspired tale will fail to spark much interest even if you follow all the advice out there and make it grammatically beyond reproach.

So how do you know if you should be applying the concepts that every writing blog (including this one) puts in front of you?

Consider that even those who have mastered the form, who have had great financial success and won awards, still manage to put out huge clunkers. Novelists, filmmakers, artists of all types rarely manage to maintain a string of endless winners. Most have hits and misses.

These are people who have all the mechanics in place and a proven track record. They don’t have any issues with the technical side of creating and they even have an audience eagerly awaiting their work. And yet they can produce a flop that makes no money, and often do.

Because there is always an unknown quantity in this equation. The reader, the viewer, the audience, will always have their own judgement on the subject.

You may think a joke is funny, but if you say it out loud and no one laughs then you have to take that into consideration. Doesn’t mean you can’t find it hilarious, but that isn’t going to be enough if you planned on being a comedian.

No advice is going to magically fill your pockets with gold coins. You have to produce your own raw materials to work with, but what you can do is find ways to make the process smoother and less stressful.

Ultimately it isn’t the end product that advice will help you with, it’s the process of how you get there. And while the audience will decide if what you come up with is any good, you get to decide if your route could have been better.

This means that when you consider advice on writing, instead of looking at the finished book and wondering if people are going to like it (something you can’t really know), you should rather focus on how satisfied you are with the process of writing it.

Was it a struggle to get finished? Did revisions take longer than you had hoped? Did you lose momentum halfway through?

This is where other writers’ experiences and suggestions can come in very useful. What worked for them won’t necessarily work for you, but it’s worth trying because you can very quickly tell if your process improves. And the only judgement that matters is yours.

Bear in mind that doesn’t mean you won’t have to persevere with a new approach to appreciate its full effect—you should at least give it time to feel comfortable to use—but if it isn’t improving your process in the way you want to improve it, then that’s reason enough to not use it.

The actual story—the premise, the characters, the plot—will depend on your imagination and inspiration (and possibly indigestion). You can fiddle with the technical aspects but by and large you will have to depend on your innate storytelling abilities. But making the process as enjoyable and rewarding as possible is something you can definitely learn from others, and worth trying if you’re finding the work heavy going.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The process of getting there - very wise words! Perfecting our craft helps, but a perfect piece isn't guaranteed to sell.

Al Diaz said...

That's the problem with art and all kind of subjective stuff. There is no infalible rule that ensures a mathematic result. Although math is really difficult for me to understand, I think it would be easier than to find the gold in arts. And yet, an artist I stay.

Unknown said...

I've been playing too much Minecraft - all that talk of ores and processing :)

Very good advice, Moody. Many aspiring authors attempt to follow the path of their heroes under the misguided belief that "if I live the life of XXX, I can have their success". As writers, we need to blaze our own trail, because that's the only one worth taking.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

These are some excellent observations and great advice. Thanks of sharing it with us...

I gave it a tweet!

Unknown said...

These are such wise words. No two successes have the same blueprint.

mooderino said...

@Alex - would be nice if there was a surefire way to the top, but sadly there isn't.

@Al - it's the struggle to work out what works and what doesn't that should be the fun part (well most of the time).

@Jamie - I think we can learn a lot from other people, but artistic expression isn't one of them.

@Micheal - thank you.

@Damyanti - cheers.

John Wiswell said...

I agree that it's vital writers get as much experience as possible to determine their own processes and identify what needs improvement. That allows you to contextualize advice much better, and there's such an excess of writing advice these days that being able to filter it is crucial to anyone surfing the literary web.

People sharing what worked for them in stories that succeeded is greatly appreciated. It's not so didactic, and if they're rigorous, we can even sense how they made a procedure work. My biggest gripe with writing advice is that so much of it is generally a tiny sliver of a whole derived from what people who succeed have done. It neglects that so many failed writers have followed the same advice and it's not really that practical for success. Unless it's what successful people do and unsuccessful people don't, they may as well be homeopathic writing rules.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I totally get this post and it echoes my own thoughts on my own post I put up today. I guess great minds think alike, right?

mooderino said...

@John - it tends to be a necessity of marketing a book on writing to try and whittle it down to a simple one-size-fits-all concept. Sells better, works rarely.

mooderino said...

@Mike - well I can't say my mind feels great very often, but in this case I'll take it.

nutschell said...

Hear hear! Great post! And I do agree. Imagination is everything--especially if your write fantasy. :) Without it, writing is just another dayjob.

Chemist Ken said...

I think that this is one of the things that have been bothering me for a while. Every writer has their own opinions about showing vs telling or the best POV so I have to be careful about whose advice I take. Eventually, I distill all these rules and suggestions down into something that works for me. Nice post.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

No one can be a hundred percent all the time. Writing is so subjective anyway. Hitting the bull's eye every singe time is impossible.

Hart Johnson said...

HA! You and I were totally on the same page today but you were at a macro level, where I was on a micro... but find what works for YOU, eh?

The Armchair Squid said...

Fighting discouragement is the biggest challenge. I like your advice about keeping it enjoyable.

Murees Dupè said...

You said everything i needed to hear in this post. I always worry about writing technique and what others will think of my work, putting what i think or want for the novel aside. This was a great post. Thank you for your kind words on my blog. It really helped.

Christine Rains said...

Marvelous post. If only we could find that one piece of magic advice, but you're right that not all advice is good for everyone, and you must persevere yourself.

Unknown said...

My CP group members and I search all over the net for good advice on writing and marketing and share what we find for each other. You're never too good to learn something new. :)

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Mooderino, each writer's journey and process is different. Its never a case of one size fits all. Sometimes I see crappy stories with bad writing becoming bestsellers and being made into movies and good books languishing on bookshelves. It kind of worries me.

mooderino said...

@nutschell - first you have to come up with the ideas, then everything else.

@Ken - it's often easier to use a successful method employed by others, but it won't necessarily work for everyone.

@Diane - Indeed. Unfortunately that kind of honesty doesn't sell how-to books so it often gets glossed over.

@Hart - might take longer but once you know things get a lot easier (and more enjoyable).

@Squid - I think people often forget the whole point is to enjoy what you're doing.

@Murees - glad to be of help.

@Christine - I think occasionally you can find a great piece of advice that's exactly what you need to hear at the time.

@Lexa - new ideas often open up the mind to lots of possibilities. Stimulating rather than prescriptive.

@Rachna - people have weird tastes and they're open to being manipulated by hype. The business side of things, I guess.

Margo Berendsen said...

You mean love doesn't always conquer all? Oh, my bubble is burst! :) No seriously, this is encouraging. That write everyday advice has always made me want to cry. I can never seem to attain it.

mooderino said...

@Margo - I don't know how to break this to you but love conquers less than 50% of problems. Statistics never lie.

Unknown said...

Sounds like writing can really take a lot out of a person. The end result is well worth it though.

PK HREZO said...

Such an important point and reminder, Moody. I've never been one to write everyday. I'm a mom with another job, I couldn't possibly write everyday. But I've never felt guilty for it, cuz the times I do get to write, I make the most of every minute. It becomes something of a higher value, and I never take it for granted. :)

mooderino said...

@lilith - hopefully.

@Pk - a big stretch of time without distraction is a rare and precious thing.

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind all the genres I've tried, the drawer manuscripts I've put away, and the manuscripts that clicked with me right away and those that were a burden to finish.

Carrie Butler said...

Well said! I'll have to bookmark this one. :)

Anonymous said...

I subscribe to your posts via email but haven't been receiving updates. I'm missing out because I forget to check for posts manually. (I have you on auto-share in Triberr)

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