When All the Simplistic Writing Advice Makes Sense

I hate those catchphrases for writers. You know the ones I’m talking about – “write every day,” “show don’t tell,” etc. No one ever explains how to apply them. What if they don’t work for me? Am I a bad person if I can’t write every day? Which part of the story is “showing,” and which is “telling”?

Over time these pieces of advice make more and more sense. I’ve experienced “eureka!” moments, when a nugget of wisdom finally clicks into place. The onset of NaNoWriMo got me thinking about my writing practice and how I’ve come to understand these common phrases. (I’m not doing it this year but support those who are.) Hopefully my interpretations save you years of frustration.

“Write Every Day”

Writing every day is not realistic for most people. They have jobs and social lives (so I’m told), or they just don’t feel up to putting words on the page that day. Here’s a secret:

It’s fine. You’re not a bad person.

I believe this advice refers to keeping up a regular writing practice. You’re only a bad person if it’s been six months and you haven’t even opened a text document. It’s happened to me before. After a week or even two, I’ll feel antsy about neglecting my writing. Either I need to fix my Work-In-Progress, start a new one, or pick out a book to read. Speaking of which…

“Read”

I talked about this in another post, so I’ll just tack on an addition. Read bad books along with good ones. I don’t mean you should seek out a book and hope it’s bad. All I’m saying is, if you start a book and roll your eyes at the writing style, don’t put it down right away. Ask yourself why you’re rolling your eyes. Why does this story turn you off? Is it the passive voice, the slow plot? Are the characters one-dimensional? I’ve read a lot of bad books this summer and have no regrets about sticking with them. Noticing writing “don’ts” in someone else’s novel teaches me what to avoid in my own. This leads me to…

“Show, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always despised this “advice” in particular. What the hell does it mean? For the love of God, what’s “show” and what’s “tell”? Aren’t you “telling” the reader the whole freaking story? Can’t a character’s stream of consciousness “show” the readers more of their personality?

Reading bad books helped me see the light. “Telling” instead of “showing” doesn’t ruin the book completely, but the story becomes a chore to slog through. Make sure the character’s internal reactions add to the reader’s understanding of recent actions, and that’s it. I’m also not a fan of the main character making judgments like “he’s so sweet” or “he annoyed me.” It’s okay once or twice, but you need actions to back up the character’s assessments. The last book I read drove me up a wall by repeating the same exact thought every other paragraph.

It makes me think of TV shows. Doesn’t it bug you when the writers say one thing in dialogue and show another through a character’s actions?

Fix this by adding consequences or new actions that support/replace what you wanted to “tell.” I’ve always been a character-and-dialogue person myself so I understand how difficult it can be to build up a plot line.

“Use Action Verbs/Active Voice”

I confess to this crime too. Sometimes you can’t avoid “was” or “had” no matter how you rework a sentence. Sometimes a sentence makes more sense when you use passive verbs. I never liked this advice either, because using active voice all the time feels daunting when you’re not used to it.

I’ve accepted this as a bad habit we all need to break. Too many instances of “was” or “had” grates on the nerves, there’s no way around it.

“Write What You Know”

This one confused me for the longest time. “So I’m only supposed to write about experiences I’ve had? I’m not that interesting!” Now I get it. The expression refers to writing about topics that appeal to you on a personal level. Don’t choose your novel idea based on a trend. If you can’t do what your characters do in your story, at least you’ll have enough interest to research the hell out of it.

Also, whenever possible, base your characters’ actions/choices on what you’ve done or seen others do. Characters should be relatable whether they’re dealing with school drama or using their magical powers to save the world.

Okay, all that’s out of my system. I feel better now.

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Filling the Void

(Or, Why We Don’t Write When We Finally Have Time to Write)

I never thought I’d be the type of person who hates being home all the time. When I had school, or work, or something to focus on, all I wanted was a couple days to stay in my pajamas and write. I never minded if some weekends turned out to be less full than others. The more time I had to myself, the better.

These days I have all the time in the world to stay in my pajamas and write. This drastic change in schedule alters my perception of what’s “work” and what’s “play.” Writing a novel and creating blog posts are now the things I should do, not the dreams that get me though the day. Focusing so much on hobbies then puts more pressure on producing an actual result. Without external motivation, or milestones achieved, it’s harder to delude myself into thinking my hobby will lead anywhere.

The absence of external stimuli creates another problem. Writing becomes much harder when thoughts calm. I think it’s why a blank page intimidates us. An average day provides us with menial tasks and responsibilities, so when we find something shiny to distract us (like a story idea), we grab onto it. That motivation is nowhere to be found when we finally get home and sit in front of our computers. Again, writing becomes the responsibility, not the distraction. We want to relax, and in that particular moment, small accomplishments like chores feel more satisfying than a few pages that probably won’t be any good anyway.

Hell, maybe this is just my version of “writer’s block,” aka “I don’t want to put real effort into my writing so I’m blaming the world.”

It’s partly because I’ve been writing for such a long time. I feel like I should have several stories published already, if not a novel. Once in a while I have to step back and remind myself there is no “deadline” in life, that everyone achieves at their own pace. A couple months ago I posted some of my original work to Scribophile. This might not seem like an accomplishment to anyone else, but it is for me because I never sought out constructive criticism like this before. Sure, I’d post on websites where I barely got readers, or send it to friends. Scribophile was the first place where I submitted my work for professional-quality criticism. All readers had good things to say but they also made me see that publication was a long way off, even further away than I’d thought.

But then, I suppose you could call that a milestone. It only took more than fifteen years to submit my writing for detailed feedback. Maybe I’ll submit to a publishing house in another fifteen years. I’m sure tons of writers are published for the first time in their 40s. How old was J.K. Rowling again?

This uncertain time in my life is messing me up. It looks like a chance to start over and finally start a career in writing, but in reality, it’s whatever I make of it. If I’m not ready, if things don’t work out, I have the rest of my life to try again. A writing practice happens without formal guidelines and restrictions, so I think sometimes our brains settle into a rut. We hold ourselves to outdated standards and forget to re-evaluate our goals. To use a smartphone analogy, it’s like we’re trying to operate a new phase in our lives without updating the software.

Going back to the blank page after a busy day, I think self-imposed timelines tie into  the “work vs. play” dilemma. It’s easy to fantasize about writing when we can’t actually sit down to write. When we do sit down in front of a computer to type up a masterpiece, we subconsciously pressure ourselves to write something good. We have limited time so we want to be productive when we do write. What we don’t realize is that, when we aim for perfection, we don’t write at all to avoid failure.

Maybe we should redirect this pressure. Maybe it’s time to view the blank page as a bigger failure than bad writing, that typing out crap is better than not typing at all. If we make an effort to write crap on a semi-regular basis, we might eventually produce non-crap on a regular basis. So for the moment I’m forgetting about publication, ignoring all my experience,  and aspiring to crap.

Writing Tips from an Unpublished Writer

Title says it all. If it helps, I started writing almost twenty years ago.

Yeah, that doesn’t help.

We won’t talk about the numerous commitment and confidence issues preventing me from querying agents. Instead, I’d like to mention something else: I give good advice. This talent doesn’t usually work on my own life, but I’ve helped countless others over the years. I’m like those psychics who can’t predict lottery numbers. If I wanted to take out more student loans, or listen to people talk about their problems all day long, I could easily be a therapist. I’d rather be an unpublished writer.

Anyway, you clicked on this post for the potentially-helpful advice that you might remember five minutes from now. F-Y-I, this is all from trial and error. If I went to college for writing or joined groups, maybe I would have learned this sooner or drawn different conclusions. All I know is that they’ve helped me…not get published. You’ve been warned.

  1. Write. I know, every advice article tells you this, but it’s for a reason. You won’t get better unless you write a whole lot of crap first. Thousands and thousands of words of pure, glorious crap. Oh sure, some of it might be grammatically correct, and your mom-teacher-friend-random person online might think you’re a natural. I’ve been there. Keep going. There is no conclusion to this point because the process doesn’t end. Your writing style has a life of its own. The way you write will develop five, ten, fifteen years from now. It’s an incremental change that results from individual decisions. You’ll get what I mean the first time you notice sentence length, or how often you use adverbs.
  2. Read. It took me a long time to get this. Logically you’d think writing and reading are inseparable, but sometimes, they drift apart. You get so wrapped up in producing that you forget how important it is to consume. Picking up a paperback, losing yourself in the story for hours, not stopping until the next chapter break…all of it reminds you why you write. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what you read. Read an interesting book/article/comic/etc., and you’ll want to write.
  3. Have a reason. This is another one that eluded me for years. A key element missing from my writing was emotion, and I could never figure out why. Why did all my original stories fall flat? Why was it so much easier to write fanfiction? I  couldn’t tell you my exact light-bulb moment, but in the last few years it finally clicked. The way I created stories needed adjustment. Characters and plot are important, but I should spend an equal amount of time on the message, the purpose. Why do I want to write this story? What do I want to tell readers? A story doesn’t have to be preachy, but it should have a theme. It will help when you lose interest in the middle and don’t know where to go next. This brings up my next point…
  4. Write however you want. I prefer to start at the beginning, but you don’t have to. Are there scenes you can’t wait to write? Write them first. For one novel (the only draft I actually finished), I skipped ahead to a collection of scenes between two of the main characters, which ended up in the middle of the story. That reminds me…
  5. Not everything will be usable. I’ve abandoned countless stories, written dozens of pages no one else will ever read. It’s okay. Sometimes you need to write scenes to get them out of your system.
  6. Shake up your routine. If you haven’t worked on your Super Important Manuscript in weeks, work on something else for a while. The novel that’s going to make you famous will be there when you’re ready for it. Sometimes, the new project you start becomes Super Important too. On the other hand…
  7. Don’t give in to “Writer’s Block.” Raise your right hand and say it with me: “Writer’s Block is an excuse. I could write if I really, really wanted to.” If it’s a schedule thing, make time. Wake up earlier or go to bed later. If it’s a story thing, ask yourself why. Are you dreading the next scene? Write another one (see Tip #4). Is the next scene necessary? Should you write it from a different POV? Turn the story around in your mind until something works. If you don’t have a story, then…
  8. Brainstorm. This is different for everyone, but it works best for me when I branch off from a topic (see Tip #3). Other pieces fall into place after that. What plot would best relate to this topic? What characters would this plot have? Eventually you zoom in on a main character.

 

Where Do I Start? (A Would-Be Freelancer’s Freak-Out)

Freelancing seems like a good option for me this summer. If everything goes according to plan I’ll be in a cast for months, so why not make some money from home? Between my journalism degree and creative writing experience, I can apply to a variety of gigs. Maybe I’ll even be a copy editor.

Then I actually looked for these writing and editing gigs. I’m finding plenty of websites for freelancers, but when I Google the names, articles tell me to avoid them. “Value your work even if you’re a newbie!” they say. “Don’t write for peanuts!”

Okay fine, thanks for the warning. Here’s the problem though – where do I apply if every company has a red flag attached to it? How do I trust instincts I don’t have yet?

I’m so confused. Help!