Wednesday, June 28, 2017
THE WORST WRITING ADVICE EVER by CHERYL PIERSON
What was the worst writing advice you ever received? Is there any such animal as “bad writing advice”? Not according to novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig. "There's only advice that works for you and advice that doesn't."
Is that true? Sometimes it seems, as writers, we can get so caught up in “the rules” that we forget the story and how to tell it. We become frustrated, and it can be downright maddening to try to remember every piece of advice from every writing source we’ve ever come across and tried to use properly.
Translating our ideas into language is one way of looking at our writing process, but how do we start? I have to admit, I am truly a ‘pantser’, not a ‘plotter’—which is really out of character for me in every other aspect of my life. But somehow, orchestrating everything to an outline and strictly adhering to that brings out the rebel in me. I just can’t do it—and I’ve tried. Here’s an example of the differences from Richard Nordquist’s “About.com” publication on writing:
In his essay "Getting Started," John Irving writes, "Here is a useful rule for beginning: Know the story--as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story--before you commit yourself to the first paragraph." Irving has written far more novels than I. Clearly he knows what works for himself in a way that I don't always for myself, but this seems to me terrible advice. I'm more inclined to E.L. Doctorow's wisdom. He once wrote that writing . . . is like driving at night: You don't need to see the whole road, just the bit of illuminated blacktop before you.
(Debra Spark, "The Trigger: What Gives Rise to the Story?" Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway. Writer's Digest Books, 1999)
Yes. That’s what I do. I don’t always see the entire big picture, and I don’t need to from the very beginning. But I do see more than “just the bit of illuminated blacktop”—in other words, the immediate “coming up next” section of the story. So I guess I’m in category #3—Swiss cheese author—I know the basics of what’s going to happen, but even so, there are a LOT of little (and big!) surprises along the way.
Nope. Neither is this one...And by the way, this anthology held the #1 western slot at Amazon for a few days a few years back, and contains my short story IT TAKES A MAN, which was a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker nominee in the Best Short Fiction Category for 2013
Aside from being on one side of the “plotter/pantser” fence and being told you’re wrong by the other side, what is the worst writing advice you’ve ever had? You don’t have to say who gave it to you—but I’m curious…what was it? And do you agree with the idea that there is no bad writing advice, just “advice that works for you and advice that doesn’t”? Bring on the comments and opinions! The worst writing advice I ever received? “Try to write an Amish romance. That’s what’s 'hot' now…” (from an agent). What’s yours?
No. It's not an Amish Romance...
For some great reading, stop by Prairie Rose Publications here:
or take a look here at Painted Pony Books for reading for young and older alike:
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Cheryl, I've had lots of good and bad advice. Bad would be a tie between "you have to have an agent" and "self-published writers don't make money".ReplyDelete
LOL I too, used to think I had to have an agent, until I had one...and then another...SIGH.Delete
Yep, there is plenty of bad advice out there to go around! LOL
My worst advice was that I had to write sex scenes in order to sell romance books. I was a newbie and someone more experienced gave me that advice, so I wrote them, although it was uncomfortable for me to write them and uncomfortable for some readers, especially older ones (like my mom!) to read them. Then a friend explained that although she liked a book of mine she read, she could not write a review or recommend it because she was a Sunday School teacher and taught teenage girls. Her belief was that sex should only be within marriage and she didn't want to be hypocritical. Her kind honesty struck me deeply and I decided to stop writing sex scenes into my books. Since that decision, many readers have told me they prefer my sweet books and/or sex taking place behind closed doors. For me, it lifted a weight off my shoulders. I felt unburdened and able to focus on the rest of the story without worrying about writing that darn scene. I think it's important to remain true to yourself when you're an author. That would be my advice to others.ReplyDelete
Stacey, I remember those days WELL. And so many publishers/agents just insisted on that! I just cringe when I read some of my early attempts to write those. LOL I (thankfully) have been able to go back and tone down or delete a lot of what I had to do in the early days to sell the stories. I feel like so many of us were bound by what a few in power wanted "back in the day"--now, we're FREE! LOLDelete
Don't quit your day job because nobody is going to buy into the fantasy lands you create.ReplyDelete
Hint -- almost all of my characters and scenarios are inspired by totally real people and events :-)
Well, none of us may get rich, Sara, but where in the world would we BE if we COULDN'T "buy in" to the fantasy lands we as writers create? And I know for a fact that others appreciate those fantasy lands and the people we write about--what a sad world it would be if we only wrote for money! I for one and thrilled that you didn't take that advice and kept on writing!Delete
I swear I'm in the same spot you are, Cheryl. I cannot, no matter who tells me otherwise, write an outline. I've tried, but it does not work for me. I do not--my characters do not--adhere to an outline. I know the basic plot and the general points of view I want to make, but I look at writing my characters lives as I look at my own? Do I plan out my entire life ahead of time? When I look at planning one WEEK of my life, everything falls to pieces. Same with my books. I would far rather write and let myself be surprised along the way, my characters know which way they'll go, and the journey is far more interesting--both to read and to write.ReplyDelete
Bad advice? I've heard it all, I believe...but this one really rubbed me the wrong way: "Your story's good, but you won't make any money writing westerns. They aren't very popular." Uggghhhhhh!
Shayna, people don't understand -- especially those who don't write -- that authors don't always write for the same reasons! Many are able to indulge their dreams of writing whatever genre they want to for the pure enjoyment of it--not because there's money to be had or not. As I said, what a sad world it would be if we only wrote for money. Yes, it's nice to have the money--and many do depend on it--not saying it isn't something people depend on for their livelihood by any means. But to me, I can't imagine writing SOLELY for that purpose.Delete
Seems there are a lot of us "pantsers" out there, Shayna!
I'm a "Swiss cheese" author too. Even in school I never wrote an outline until I finished the paper. When I start a story, I know who my main characters are, how the story starts, how it ends, and have a few random scenes that fit somewhere in the middle. The rest unfolds as I write.ReplyDelete
The worst writing advice I received is "a chapter must be at least 5000 words in length." Just no.
Oh, Isabella! You sound just like me with the outlines and so on. And as for a chapter...I don't even make chapter divisions until I'm completely finished with the story. Like you, I know my main characters, and certain scenes--many times I have a vague idea of how the ending will come along, but I change that sometimes, too.Delete
I don't think I really ever got any advice, but I started this 'serious' journey of writing at an "advanced" age. Having been an actor all my life, the story structure was a part of the DNA. Having said that, I remember in high school having my English teacher reading a story I'd written for an assignment to the class. She used it as an example of what a story could be, but when she returned it, she gave me a 'B'. Talk about mixed messages. Oh well.ReplyDelete
Like you, I don't know all the details, but I usually live with my characters long before putting word to paper. My biggest issue, grammar. *UGH* LOL. Thanks for the post, it makes one feel less alone on this journey. (And by the way, as you know, I love your stories.) Doris
Dori, that is so weird about that teacher! You'd think it would have been an A+++ after that rousing bout of praise from her. I would have had to have asked..."WHY DID MY STELLAR PAPER GET A B?" SIGH.Delete
You're not alone in your grammar issue. Many authors have that--and I think its a matter of the fingers racing far ahead of the brain! LOL Thank you for your very kind words, my friend!
I have had two pieces of advice that simply do not apply to me in any way, shape, or form. The first was to cut off the first three chapters and label chapter 4 as chapter 1. But I start right square in the middle of the action, so I have to go back and add at least a scene and usually 4 or 5 chapters so the reader knows who and where the characters are. To this day, I've never once been able to write the first chapter first. In Honey Beaulieu, a concept I thought of in 1998, the scene I wrote won't be included until book 5! So that advice was very bad for me.ReplyDelete
The second piece of advice that doesn't work for me is "edit, edit, edit." That generally ruins the rhythm of the sentences and the flow of the story. Of course I have an editor who finds errors and typos, but I don't go through and look at recasting sentences or passages. What I write first is what gets published nearly always. So the best advice for me would be more along the lines of "Trust Your Muse."
Which, to put in a plug for Prairie Rose Publications, is why publishing there is such a joy. PRP is a story-first outfit!
Oh Jacquie! That WAS bad advice about cutting the chapters. That should never be 'blanket' advice--I've read books that that rule might be applied to with ease, but I'd never say that to just anyone, because writers are so different in how they begin their stories. And I agree with you on the "edit, edit, edit"...I write everything longhand. It gives my brain time to think. Like you, I have to do very little editing when I enter it into the computer. It's impossible for me to write a book or a short story on the computer--I sit and stare at a blank screen. But when I have my pen and paper, it all just flows as it should.Delete
Thank you so much for your VERY kind words about Prairie Rose. Hard to believe we are coming up on FOUR years!
Well. I did not get much advice because no one knew I was writing..just me, at night, free time writing, writing, writing. I stumbled upon writing, as I've said numerous times, from mind numbing boredom...broke my ankle so I couldn't play golf. Hurt a vertebrae in my back so I couldn't play golf. Played bridge but it bored me silly.ReplyDelete
So, not being acquainted with a computer at all, I did begin to toy with Word documents...and to learn how to use a Word document...I began a story.
From that moment and for years, stories poured out of my head. I'd never written anything in my life. I still wonder where all these came from.
So, this was my new horizon and although I knew my story...I had ooh, so much more to learn. All good advice, for the most part.
Except--get an agent. I didn't even try because I can't stand for someone else to be in control of what I'm doing.
Next bad advice? Don't bother with the new so-called e-presses...go for the big houses.
Haha...I did go for the big publishing houses, and I have saved every rejection letter--mainly to remind me what I did right...not what I did wrong.
I am a self-learner, and I began on that sharp steep incline of learning the ropes. And I did. And thank God for those wonderful ePresses.
Celia, I have saved every rejection letter I ever got too. The one I love was from an "agent" I had tried to get. She wrote back "We are not sufficiently enthused by your product to offer our representation." Years later, she turned out to be just what I had surmised by her snotty attitude-- a "wannabe" writer who hadn't quite "made it" yet. She's still "not there" yet...tried to friend me on FB the other day. Uh...no.Delete
I'm so glad you turned to writing--sorry for the reason for it, but boy, talk about "when one door closes, another one opens!"
I have received good advice and bad advice.ReplyDelete
In the beginning of my career I was told I needed an agent to be considered by the major publishing houses. Turns out, getting an agent was more difficult than getting an acceptance from a publisher.
I was a short story writer and wrote paranormal and fantasy. Lots of rejections there. I wouldn't say that "write what you love" worked on my behalf. I did, finally, sell 5 short stories to 2 different magazines, but it was clear to me I needed to write a novel. Novels require a time commitment, but I was willing to give it a try. I sold several novels to an e-publisher. RWA did not support e-published authors. I felt inferior.
As I began to write a time travel western, that inferiority and lack of support from RWA, made me feel I was not good enough. The result was writer's block. Hemmingway once said there was no such thing as writer's block. It was just a lazy author who got stuck. His words did more harm than good. I did finally get some good advice from a fellow author who said, "You have to fall in love with your hero." Now that was the advice that got me back on track and I finished that novel and it has been one of my best selling books.
I am a plotter. I don't write every tiny detail in advance, but I do write a synopsis of sorts telling the entire story beginning to end. I'm flexible though. When I get an epiphany, I use it. I do have to know where I'm headed with the story or I get off track. We writers are all so different in what works for us, what inspires us, and what we want to say in our stories. It's no surprise to me that what's good advice for one author, might be bad for another.
Sarah, I think RWA changed a LOT in the time period when we were first starting out--it's so huge now, it's really lost that feeling of "helpfulness" that it had at first, and especially when it turned its nose up at indie authors and the smaller presses, along with e-book publishers.Delete
Although Hemingway is famous, always remember that there are several others who are famous that don't feel that same way. I like the advice about falling in love with your hero. LOL Yes, sometimes that just HAS to be the answer. We'll never get writer's block THEN!
When I started the first book I ever wrote (my tome that will never see the light of day!) I had one scene that wouldn't leave my brain. But it turned out that scene was about halfway through the book, not at the beginning. I worried myself silly that I wrote that scene first. Then I learned that I could write to get to that scene and write other scenes that might be interspersed throughout the story and it made me feel SO much better--like a weight had been lifted!
It isn't so much bad advice that I was given, but rather an observation I once made while at a writing conference many moons ago. I befriended a very nice lady who was hoping to be published. She'd brought along her manuscript and planned to offer it up to everyone she met so they could read it and give her feedback. I happened to see her at the end of the conference and she was so disheartened and looked, frankly, exhausted and disillusioned. Two things became clear to me: keep your work close to you and be careful who you choose to critique it. And conferences aren't the place to ask for feedback!!ReplyDelete
Great post, Cheryl.
Kristy, that is one sad lesson that so many people have to learn the hard way. Getting Sis or Mom to read your work and tell you how wonderful it is is quite different than getting fellow writers to read it and say the same. People don't realize if they ask for feedback, that means good AND bad! But how can you fix something if you don't realize there's a problem? Also, what is a problem to one reader might be nothing to another--you have to follow your own heart in your writing. If you listen to everyone else, it's not your story anymore. This is one reason I really don't like critique groups. I've said this before, and I firmly believe, that in many cases they do much more harm than good. Not always, but probably 99% of the time unless a person is very fortunate to find the right mix of people! You're so right in your observations!Delete
As one pantser to another, I relate to everything you said about the process of writing that works for you. When my characters begin talking to each other, I get out of the way and let them tell their story. I think the problem with advice is that when we are new authors, we tend to believe all advice is good and try to follow it. As for agents, I acquired one at the same time I got my first book contract. In the late 90s, it was almost necessary to have one to deal with the NY publishers. But thankfully, with the arrival of digital publishers, an agent is almost a liability!ReplyDelete
That's true, Linda. When you are first starting this journey of becoming a writer, you want to do everything "right"--but no one tells you that there is no ONE "right way"! LOL And some advice is directly contrary to what others might advise you to do. And you're right about the agent being a liability -- not true in all cases, but I would say for most, it IS true. There are too many other avenues these days and freedoms for authors that didn't exist "back in the day"!Delete
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My worst piece of writing advice - which I believed for many, many years - was to join a critique group. It was horrible!! There were people who told me my writing was perfect (it wasn't quite.) Some who didn't understand what I was writing - for instance a sci-fi author does not understand children's fiction in general. And some who were jealous and mean and trashed it all. At times I did believe people I THOUGHT I trusted - and I tried to rewrite to suit others. Some people did give me valid ideas and I'm grateful - others set me back a long time until I realized that my writing was no worse or better than many people.ReplyDelete
It also helped to look at who actually got published and who just 'played' at being a writer and going to crit groups. I have one sweet friend who's always wanting to start a new crit group - we need to get motivated she says!! Well, if I spend my time at crit groups with people who do not understand what I write - it never ends as time well spent! Crit groups in my opinion are "the good, the bad and the ugly" and sad to say there aren't many good ones!!
Look at it this way - you have five writers of mixed genres - while I MIGHT be able to judge a sci-fi book, a mystery and a romance, some others are totally one genre or another. Give the sci-fi guy a romance and he's way out of his league. And if you have people who come in off the streets, who don't understand your writing, you get opinions from someone who is just reading your stuff blind almost. If that makes sense.
So when I give advice - I tell new writers - don't join a crit group unless you have one where people are going to commit to learning about your characters and story - who want to help you make your story the best it can be.
I could not agree more, Donna Alice! Not only do some authors in a particular genre not understand the nuances of writing in a different genre than what they're used to, there are people who join these groups that are just as new as everyone else--they don't know any more than the next person, yet, there they are, giving advice!Delete
There are very very few good critique groups. I have seen so much petty jealousy and cut downs in these groups (I used to teach creative writing and boy...)that it can literally destroy the joy and creativity of new writers who have stars in their eyes and believe everything that they're told about their writing. It's really sad! And I agree with you about "the good, the bad, and the ugly"--there is a LOT of ugly out there!
Great post and I loved reading all the comments. I sat here nodding my way through them.ReplyDelete