All You (N)ever Wanted: My favourite (and least favourite) writing advice

Ah – writing advice.

If there’s one thing writers do with as much (if not more!) enthusiasm as actual writing, it’s seeking advice on writing.

The internet positively teems with the stuff.  Plus anyone with even the smallest portion of a novel either on their computer or in their soul is guaranteed to own at least one writing how-to book.

(Personally, I have four, plus a duo tang full of photocopied notes, and numerous downloaded webpages.)

But how much this boundless writing advice is of practical use?  At a recent meetup of the writing group I lead, this was the discussion topic du jour: writing advice – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Everyone was to come prepared to share the best piece(s) of writing advice they’d ever heard/read/received, and the worst piece(s).

I have five pieces of favourite writing advice – the specific tips that have really stuck with me over the years, and helped me straighten out some of my own writing flaws.  And so, I give you…

My Writing Advice Hall of Fame

1) “It is usually easier to build tension by giving information rather than withholding it.  Not telling enough can build confusion rather than tension….  Every time you think along the lines of, ‘I want the reader to wonder if he’s hiding something,’ or ‘I want the reader to wonder where she came from,’ just consider telling the reader….”

Source: Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction by Robyn Carr

Why I love it: Because I once tried to do everything Carr describes, and failed miserably!

Secrets, I’ve learned, have a way of making plots terribly contrived, for the necessity of keeping the reader in the dark means keeping every other character oblivious as well.  And yet, in real life, most people with secrets have at least one confidante (not to mention they burn up tons of mental energy brooding over their secret shame, which tends not to go unnoticed indefinitely).

The better way is to give the information to the reader, be it through another character being told or through exposition, and creating tension through the reader’s curiosity over what will happen when everyone else finds out.

2) “The goal is not to get everything in but to put in what works best.”

Source: Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction by Robyn Carr

Why I love it: Because my first (incomplete, shelved) novel was more than 900 manuscript pages.  Enough said.

3) “The story’s plot is the synthesis of its individual characters’ plots.”

Source: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Crawford Kilian

Why I love it: Because the reason my first novel is, indeed, shelved (not to mention 900 manuscript pages) is because It was waaaay too subplot- and allegory-heavy.  Too much emphasis on what every element stood for in the real world and not enough attention to how it all fit together in the story as a whole.  The plot went everywhere, and as a result went nowhere meaningful.

Also, because I reaaally want to take another crack at this story someday.

4) “You can’t conceive of an idea you’re unable to execute.  It was your idea!”

Source: Canadian short story author Nancy Lee

Why I love it: Because every idea for a novel I’ve ever had – from the shelved one, to my current novel-in-progress, to the three future novels that are floating about embryonically in the amniotic fluid of my consciousness – has been followed by the same hair-trigger thought and fear:

You’ll never pull that off.

5) “Build a writing practice.”

Source: Canadian short story author Nancy Lee

Why I love it: Because, like yoga, meditation, martial arts, or prayer, if you don’t build your daily life around your writing, your schedule will never accommodate it.

And my least favourite writing advice…

1) “Write what you know.”

Source: Probably the most common writing tip ever

Why I hate it: Because I write what I want to know, or to find out what I know.  Because I write to escape my dull-as-dishwater life, not reproduce it.  Just sayin’.

——————–

Question: What are your most loved and most hated pieces of writing advice?

(Image source #1 and #2)

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13 thoughts on “All You (N)ever Wanted: My favourite (and least favourite) writing advice

    • And conducting research has never been easier with both the internet and the offline the inter-connectedness of the world today. “Write what you know” is perhaps good advice from a different era. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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    • Agreed. I especially curse such advice on dark and stormy nights, or after waking up from dreams that seemed so real. 🙂

      But then, taking chances and following one’s own advice seems to be how successful writers become successful in the first place.

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      • That’s just it. In half the Steven Kings I ever read, nothing happens for at least a hundred pages. The reader is just chilling with the characters and getting to know them. Stephanie Meyer is a walking “don’t do this” list, but, last I heard, she is making her car payments on time.

        I think big time writers just do what feels natural. The rest of us anxiety ourselves into a corner.

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      • Agree with what Eric & Janna said. Another walking “don’t do this” list is the author of the 50 Shades Trilogy. And to boot , she has horrid basic writing skills. i.e. repetitive use of the same words, and phrases. I had to read the first book to see what all of the fuss was about. By about page 35, when she had said “she bit her lower lip, her breathing hitched, and she tucked her hair behind her ear” about 17 times each, I was wondering….did this woman not have an editor? And, she definitely is not having trouble making her car payments either!

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      • I can’t wait to read this book. Like you, I want to see what the fuss is about – the comments I’ve seen about it are shockingly negative. I’ve got myself a secondhand copy, and as soon as I finish what I’m currently reading, I’m gonna be all over FSoG like a dirty sock. It’s gonna be all kinds of awesome; I can tell. 😉

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  1. I’m not a rule follower, but I kind of understand the ‘write what you know’ concept because it’s easier writing about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel if you’ve done it than if you haven’t. But having said that, I’m like you and don’t necessarily agree with it

    A lot of novels I’ve read recently start off with someone waking up and looking at themselves in the mirror to describe what they look like. I was told years ago that this is a definite ‘no no’. I think one of my novels has someone looking in a mirror in the beginning, so I broke that rule (I think I’ve broken every rule on writing ever written!) 😉

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    • I think that given the ease of conducting quality research these days, thanks both to the internet and the general connectedness of the modern world, anyone can write credibly about any subject so long as they’re willing to give it the time and effort it deserves. This is a great time to be a writer!

      In my WIP, I have the protagonist look into a basin that is empty of water and ponder how she doesn’t need the water in any case to know what she looks like (which she then proceeds to describe). So not only did I too break the no mirrors/reflective surfaces rule, I cheated while doing it. 😉

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  2. Great post!
    Write what you know vs. Research?
    Research in our day allows us to fill in the blanks and become seemingly expert at describing anything, but if you have never known or lived it in some fashion, you can never ‘bring across’ the emotions, viewpoints, etc.
    Am not contesting or disagreeing with your comment, just feel that a little knowledge couldn’t hurt.
    Think of a romance novel where the writer had never loved?

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    • I agree that a little knowledge couldn’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be one’s own knowledge – not anymore. With the world now so connected, it’s much easier for a writer to find a real person who has experienced the situation and to “research” him/her. If lucky, that person would also be willing to read the first draft and point out areas for improvement.

      Of course, the average writer wouldn’t go to such effort unless s/he was really interested in the unknown topic. Which, to me, suggests s/he already has a bit of emotional insight into it, and that s/he will be able to draw an emotional parallel to something s/he has experienced as a good starting point.

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