The solo journey to becoming a better writer
The title of this story is a little tongue-in-cheek, but we must be vigilant when it comes to our work. Writing advice is everywhere. It’s like seeing green cars the day you buy a green car. Once you hang your novelist’s shingle the writing advice will fire-hose its way into your brain. The stuff is everywhere.
But there’s a core problem with this generalized advice.
The tips come from well-meaning writers all with intentions of helping those who come after them. There are pitfalls to avoid and hurdles to jump. It would be silly to ignore everything you learn, but you’ve got to develop your own author’s filter (like the post I wrote about grammar below).
Advice is, at best, autobiographical. The stuff we dish out should be based on things that happen to us. When someone gives us writing advice (including me), the advice comes from that writer’s journey. Our journeys will be different.
One author may tell you serialized fiction is the death-knell for anyone who wants a serious career as a writer, while the next author tells you books in series are a must (this happened to me recently).
You may hear Hemingway used a certain kind of typewriter and any writer who doesn’t use that machine is a jerk. Or that asking your readers for their email address is tacky. Hemingway didn’t use email. It worked for him.
So, who do we believe?
The simple answer is: run each piece of advice through the machine (your book and sales process). If the piece of advice moves the needle, keep it. If the advice is a failure, bury it.
You must judge the credibility of the source of the advice, but not dwell on it too much. Every book is a fingerprint, every writer as unique as the next. We collect, test, combine, add, and subtract.
Run all advice through the machine
What the hell’s the machine? The machine is your process — the system/platform you develop to create and promote your work. My machine is different than your machine is different than Stephen King’s machine.
Your audience is a big piece of this process. Perhaps you get a hot tip about dialogue, like this one I wrote below:
5 Instant Fixes for Your Fiction Dialogue
And How to Mine Reality for Fantastic One-Liners to Boost Your Novel
Maybe you think it’s great advice, but you won’t know if it works for you until you run it through the machine. Your readers may hate what my readers love. Last time I checked most books are quite different from one-another, even the ones that sell millions of copies.
As your writing career progresses, you’ll establish a personal set of writing principles unique to your situation.
Someday you may give advice of your own — the best stuff that’s worked for you over the years. This same advice may ruin a junior writer. Recently, I learned to force myself to persevere through the hards scenes. Until then, I had followed common advice to skip the hard parts and keep the writing momentum going, moving to easy parts.
Once I persevered I recognized the power of finishing what I start. The relief of working through the hard parts greatly improved the scenes which followed (I wrote about that discovery below).
Testing and re-testing
Take huge risks with your writing. Writing is one of the few professions where it’s hard to hurt someone physically (unless you literally throw the book at them) and easy to hurt them emotionally, but a huge gray area exists between.
- Filter the worst ideas through initial judgement.
- Collect at many pieces of sound advice.
- Run them through the machine.
- Test and re-test different combinations.
- Never stop learning, so you can add more ideas to the machine.
Advice is free and most of it you’d be better off ignoring. However, if you both collect and test new advice frequently, you’ll develop a very successful writing style that will be hard to ignore.