When I was younger, I would devour a book or blog on how to write, and I’d think, “Okay, maybe this is the one that will stick. Maybe this is the one true path that will work for me.” Maybe I can write just like Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Sue Grafton, or even Strunk and White.
Inevitably, I would do my best for a few days or a few weeks, and then I’d start to drag my feet. Or I’d miss my thousand words per day for one day, and then two, and then I’m hardly on the writing-a-thousand-words-per-day plan anymore, am I?
Trying to follow these myriad, often-conflicting pieces of writing advice can be exhausting. Every time you find a process that doesn’t work, it can be even more dispiriting. They’re a bit like fad diets.
Yet, I have a shelf of books about improving your writing. I follow blogs about improving your writing. My own blog is all about writing and learning about writing. I love this stuff. I love the analysis of the writing process almost as much as the actual writing. So how do we make that learning process more useful, and less painful?
Today, I don’t want to talk writing advice. I want to talk about how we take writing advice. Writing advice…advice. Meta-advice, if you will.
Remember Who You Are
If you go look in the mirror right now, chances are pretty good that you won’t see Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. (If you do, get them a warm drink and a typewriter in a corner and they’ll stay out of your way.)
When someone successful puts out writing advice, it’s easy to say, “Look how well it worked for them.” We focus too much on the “look how well it worked,” and ignore the “for them” part.
We all have different life experiences, different internal machinery. We live in different times, places and circumstances. Even if those wildly successful writers could provide the exact book-length recipe that lead them to their wild success, it wouldn’t work the same way for the rest of us. We have different circumstances, and different mental cogs and flywheels that make us tick.
This gets said sometimes, in various ways, but usually not loudly enough. The first thing to accept is that we each have our own recipe for success. It’s going to be different from everyone else’s recipe.
Instead of trying to replicate someone’s recipe, step back and try some of their ingredients.
Pick and Choose
Let’s mix metaphors. Look at all that writing advice like the classic American buffet. There’s everything from pancakes and steak to crab legs and raspberry ice cream. There’s way too much. A lot of these things don’t really belong together. Some of it is fresh, some of it has been sitting there a while. See, the metaphors are all food-related. It’s fine.
If you try to take everything from the buffet, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only take one thing…well, why are you at the buffet? Instead, pick a few things that seem to go together. Things you think you’ll like. Pick and choose.
I know myself better than any author with a book on writing knows me. I know what I’m good at and not-so-good at. When I hear some advice, I can think about it and have a gut instinct about whether it will be good or bad for me.
Unfortunately, I don’t know myself perfectly well. There are probably some things that would sound awful to me at first hearing, but actually work pretty well. There are certainly things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ended up working terribly for me.
When following writing advice, pick and choose what sounds good. Once in a while, maybe try something that you’re skeptical about, just in case it surprises you. Follow that advice for a while. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, don’t be beholden to it. Throw it away and try something else.
Let it All Wash Over You
When I think of following writing advice, I tend to think of making a plan and putting it into action. It’s a bit of a science experiment. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and compare your results to what was expected. (Okay, this one isn’t a food metaphor. Sorry.)
That’s just my personal default mode. You may be different. But there are other ways to learn. As clever, thinking humans, we are great at acquiring knowledge and skills through purposeful study and experimentation. But we still have an ape brain lurking just below the surface. That animal brain, that subconscious, is great at learning just by exposure.
I’ve read plenty of blog posts and a few books on writing that just didn’t inspire me to go out and try doing something new and different. I’ve read some that I enjoyed, but I didn’t come away with a list of things to put into practice. I think that can still be useful. The act of considering the writing process, and listening to other people’s opinions and thoughts on the topic can still exercise those subconscious muscles. Your ape brain will take bits and pieces, mix them into your subconscious stew, and pour out a big helping the next time you put words on a page. (I did it! We’re back in food metaphors!)
Raise Each Child Differently
As a parent of three children, I know for a fact that my parenting style has changed over the years. My oldest got a different experience that the middle child or the youngest. As a young parent, I worried about things that I now know are no big deal. As an older parent, I have new worries that my younger self never considered. And regardless of order and what I’ve learned along the way, each of my children is their own person, with a unique personality and way of seeing the world.
Have you ever heard writers say that their books (or stories or projects) are like their children? Well, it’s true. Sort of. Each project comes along at a different time in your life. You, yourself, are different when writing them. And each project is its own thing. It has its own needs and its own unique challenges. Just like being a parent of children, when you’re a parent of words, you have to adapt.
It’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world to find a way to get through a book, or even a short story. And it’s really damn frustrating when I find out that what I did last time doesn’t really work that well for the next one. It’s unfair, frankly. But that’s the way it is. One of my favorite quotes lately is Gene Wolf’s: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”
Accept that some projects — maybe every project — will be different. Even if something worked for you previously, don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work this time. And keep all your failures in your back pocket. You never know when a project will come along where one or two of those things just happen to fit.
There is no silver bullet. No One True Way. I write as well as I can today, and I keep learning new things so that I’ll write a little better tomorrow. Promises of sudden writing super-powers are enticing, just like those diet books that supposedly let you lose 20 pounds in a week. Unfortunately, those promises usually don’t pan out. It’s the steady, incremental improvements that make a real difference over the long term.
Many writers, myself included, like to think about some nebulous point in the future when we will have “made it big.” It’ll all be easy after that. The words will flow out of my keyboard and onto the bestseller lists. I’ll have it all figured out.
Even for the people on the bestseller lists, with the books about how to write, it doesn’t work that way. They still struggle sometimes, and if they’re good, they keep changing up their tactics. They keep learning. Instead of imagining some point of total enlightenment, think of learning as a continuous journey. There is no writing nirvana. It may be a bit sad to accept that we’ll never get to the point where we have it all figured out. But it’s also pretty awesome that we can always get even better than we are today.
That’s the end of my writing advice…advice. We’ll be back to the regular old non-meta writing advice by next week. And I hope you’ll take the things that work for you, for the project you’re working on, and throw away the things that don’t, without a hint of remorse.