Writing advice: what I wish someone would have told me when I started

Starting as a writer can be very bewildering, and books, blogs, workshops and classes are full of advice. It can be really hard to figure out what is important. Here are some things I wished someone had told me in 2005.

1. DO finish your story. If you have no finished story, you have nothing. When you finish it, start another one. DON’T be precious about the first story. Most likely, it’s severely lacking in the genius department. That’s OK. Just finish it. Write another one.

2. DO learn craft and continue learning. Listen to people further up the slippery pole than you are, especially if they’re in a place where you would like to be.

3. DON’T, like, EVER, pay someone to publish your work. Money flows TO THE WRITER, except when you decide it doesn’t, like when you hire an editor for self-publishing, and when the boundaries of their service to you are clear.

4. DO learn “the rules”. Learn why they exist, and what the reason is behind them. Mostly, those reasons fall into two groups: 1. Reader engagement. You want your work to be vivid and pack an emotional punch, 2. Clarity. You want the reader to understand what you’ve written.

5. Then, after having done 4 for a year or so, DO forget about all those rules. Because they’re not rules, they are tools to help new writers understand. “Show, not tell” is about making your writing more vivid. “One POV character per scene” or “No head-hopping” is about clarity. “Don’t use the word ‘that’” is about not stuffing sentences with unnecessary words (except don’t get rid of the word “that” too often. You need it).

6. Having done 4. and 5., DON’T fall down the “must use interesting prose” rabbithole. Seriously, I’m still undoing the damage done to some of my earlier fiction by this BS. If someone remarks on your use of the word “was” or “that” or “something” or “and”, signs are that you’re probably doing something that’s repetitive. But getting rid of all of these offending terms does not make your writing as dynamic and varied as getting rid of half of them. This should be the most easy half. When you need to twist a sentence around to make it more “interesting”, you’ve lost the plot, and probably a good number of readers.

7. Talking about plot, DO learn about plot and character. This is MUCH more important than micro-editing your prose. Do I need to shout how much more important this is?

8. DO declare a work finished (even if you decide it’s no good) and move on. DON’T dwell on a single story. At this point, your career will be much better served by your writing another story.

9. DON’T shit on other writers, no matter how famous. Yup, Fifty Shades wasn’t my cuppa, nor was the Da Vinci Code, but those writers did something right. If you’re interested in learning, find out what it is, and stop whinging about their terrible prose. If anything, there is the proof that prose really doesn’t matter one iota as long as people can understand what’s being said. Besides, whinging makes you look like a dick.

10. DON’T take advice from someone who has a financial interest in the subject matter of their advice. Or at least don’t do so without extensive checking of that advice.

11. DO connect with other writers. Who you know is important. No, not for schmoozing, but for networking and finding out about opportunities. It is extremely unlikely that you will live close to any genre writers who are at the same career stage as you. You meet them online. This is what social media is for, and it can be very beneficial and very important.

The worst writing advice

Writers often ask each other this: what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? Following this question, the funny, sad and tragic stories come out, of advice given by friendly, but misguided fellow writers, of paid-for assessors who really didn’t know much about fiction or others who were plain rude.

This post is not about that. I have had some incidences of laughable advice, of occasions where my fellow writers led me onto a path that ultimately led to a place worse than where I was coming from, but those incidences will stay in my personal memory. No doubt I have given such advice, too. I have no illusions about that.

This post is about the slush I see, about an older manuscript I’m revising, and about what I think is the singlemost damaging piece of advice doled out in workshops and writing courses:

Your prose should be active and not use dull verbs.

I have a problem with this, not because it’s bad advice (it isn’t), but because it leads almost every writer to write notoriously bad prose through the simple and very human assumption that if you do something right 70% of the time, you get decent marks, but if you do it all of the time, you get full marks.

Wrong. This advice often leads to the most beginner-ish and most tortuous prose on the planet, and an editor can do nothing with it, because the crap is terribly insidious and all-pervading.

I’m writing this because I’m angry with myself for getting caught up in this must-write-active-sentences and must-use-interesting-verbs advice. I’m editing a manuscript that is full of this sort of crap. It is insidious. I have to make changes to many, many sentences. I wrote this about three years ago.

So, what is the problem?

OK, an example:

Carla opened the bottle. The contents smelled strongly of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle and was hit in the face by a strong smell of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle. A strong smell of vinegar wafted out.

These are all functional, quite simple constructions. But say you were afraid of starting the sentence with a name, or you had a feeling that somehow you needed a more complicated sentence.

When Carla opened the bottle, a smell of vinegar wafted out.

Here we have four perfectly serviceable constructions writers can use. Why then, do so many writers feel that it’s necessary to say stuff like this:

After opening the bottle, a smell of vinegar pervaded Carla’s nose.

Urgh. I mean: urgh, urgh, urgh. Why make such an effort to say a simple thing in such a complicated sentence, which is grammatically incorrect to boot. Why make the smell of vinegar a character? What is with the smells pervading people’s noses? Has no one heard of the verb ‘to smell’? Why, why, why?

The worst thing is, a total, total beginner will probably in all his or her ignorance, write a sentence like the top examples. After a writing course or reading a book on writing, or a few workshop sessions, he or she will come into bad habits, and those habits need to be un-learned first. Scents pervading noses, eyes dropping to the floor, just don’t OK?

Two simple rules here:

If it doesn’t sound like something someone would say in real life, don’t say it.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!