(Click here to watch “Inside the Writers’ Studio,” a series offering comic relief for writers.)
A writer I know wrote the following on his blog a while back: “Stephen King, for instance, believes that a writer should never know what the story is going to be and instead should sit down and let the story go wherever it wants.”
Another writer offering writing advice quoted John Dufresne: “You must want to write so badly that it hurts not to. If you don’t write today, you ought to feel guilty. If you don’t feel guilty, you aren’t meant to write.”
I don’t know about you, but I find it the height of arrogance to presume to know whether I or anyone else is “meant to write.”
The widely published authors probably (I hope) say the things they say because they’re asked to share their wisdom. Maybe they feel like they have to say something that sounds “writerly.” I don’t know. But as someone who has been writing for 25 years and who is not as widely published as Stephen King or John Dufresne (not remotely), but who has still doneokayIguess, I have some writing advice of my own.
Advice for People Who Take Writing Advice
Here’s the thing about writing advice: the tips are as varied and arbitrary as hiccup cures. Remember Jennifer Mee, the poor girl who had the hiccups for five weeks? She tried everything from downing pickle juice to drinking water from the wrong side of the glass to putting a post-it note on her forehead.
A piece of paper.
On her forehead.
To stop weeks of hiccups.
(DISCLAIMER: I’M NO DOCTOR–>)My personal theory on hiccup cures and their diverse nature is that, often, hiccup cures are largely psychological and unique to the individual. Your pickle juice might be my paper-on-forehead. Why? Because it’s all dependent upon what each believes will work. When Meggie is scared out of her wits by a helpful friend screaming “BOO!” because he’s sick of listening to her “buggup! buggup!,” what’s the one thing she’s not thinking about?
When Marc drinks water while holding a pencil in his mouth, he’s so busy trying not to spill that the hiccup is forgotten.
When I have a case of the hiccups, I avoid thinking about them. I do something else. This gets rid of them, for me. And, like anyone else with sure-fire remedies, my own hiccup “cure” has been given freely and often. “Just stop thinking about them,” I say oh-so-wisely. “They’ll go away.”
But do they?
No. My cure only works on me.
The same can be said for writing advice. Before I get into that, I should make clear that I’m not talking about writing instruction. If you’re reading an instructional book on writing, don’t stop. There is valuable information inside those covers, tools to help you develop your characters, create setting, weave that setting into your story, weave your characters into your setting and story, and adjust your narrative to match the weaving of your characters and setting and story. All that.
Instruction ranges from basic (Creative Writing: Forms and Techniques, Lavonne Meueller and Jerry D. Reynolds) to more involved (Josip Navakovich’s Fiction Writers Workshop), and much of it is sound information to take with you through the various stages you’ll experience as a writer. Not enough can be said about exercises, either (What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painteris a wonderful book of exercises). They not only encourage you to get writing, but they’re often invaluable to the growth of your skill as they force concentration on very specific elements.
For example (if I may sidestep for a moment): One of my favorite exercises in What If? is to write a scene using only one-syllable words. This exercise does a few things:
1. it introduces the notion that a good story relies not on your fabulous knowledge of multi-syllabic words, but on how convincing you can be with a limited vocabulary.
2. it asks you to be very, very disciplined—it ain’t easy sticking to monosyllabic words for a single sentence, never mind a whole scene.
3. it’s fun!
No matter how naturally talented you are, there is always something to be learned. For this reason, instructional books on how to improve your skill are often worth the time.
But advice? That’s another story.
Hang around writers or dabble in the writing world long enough and you’ll hear it all.
1. When to write. (First thing in the morning. An hour after you wake up. At the same time every day. At a different time every day. When you’re all alone in the house/apartment. When you can hear welcome noises through the door. After dinner. Just before going to sleep. At midnight when your mind is clear of the day’s stresses. At three in the morning when no one in the world except third-shift workers are crazy enough to be awake on purpose.)
2. How often to write. (Once a day. Once every two days. Once a week. Every other Thursday.)
3. How much to write. (One thousand words. Two hundred words. Three single-spaced pages. A sentence.)
4. How often and how much to write. (A thousand words a day. One sentence every day. Two pages every two days, even if one of those days you write nothing…as long as you end up with two pages every other day.)
5. How often, how much, and when to write. (Two pages every second Thursday at seven-thirty in the morning!)
And not to be forgotten are the personal essentials:
1. Where your writing space should be. (In the middle of things. Off somewhere private. Half and half.)
2. What your writing space should be. (Small and cozy to keep your ideas close. Large, open, and airy to let your mind roam free. Neat and organized, as should you be! Cluttered and comfortable—creativity knows no rules!)
3. Final touch-ups. (Books around you. A nice pen. Soft music. No music. Open window. Closed window, shades down. Pickle-juice on your forehead and a post-it in your mouth.)
Here’s my advice:
1. When to write: when you want to.
2. How often to write: as often as you want to.
3. How much to write: until you feel like stopping.
4. How often and how much to write: see #2 and #3.
5. How much, how often, and when to write: see #1 – #4.
6. Where and what your writing space should be: wherever and whatever appeals to you. (When I was writing Pretty Much True…, one spot–the kitchen island–would do for months, and then I’d have to move to another room–the upstairs office, say–to feel inspired at all. )
No one knows you the way you do, and you are probably very aware of what makes you comfortable, when you do or don’t feel inspired, and what you like to have around you. What works for one writer will not work for others. Take Hemingway and Fitzgerald, for instance–drinking “worked” for them.
The point I’m making, here, is that most successful writers don’t follow the advice of other writers. They do what they do because it comes naturally to them. If they enjoy writing in the morning, they write in the morning. If they need to write a page a day to keep the juices flowing, they write a page a day. It’s not a conscious following of any set rule, but is as simple as, “I really like to have a glass of water handy when I’m writing. So, I think I’ll do that.”
Maybe writers come to believe so much in what works for them that they want to share. They genuinely want to help others. Understandable–we all want to try to help, and the several thousand hiccup cures that came by way of phone calls and emails to help poor Jennifer Mee prove it.
Mee tried each and every “cure,” by the way. But in the end, she said, not one piece of outside advice got rid of her hiccups.
They just stopped naturally.