Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.

Impractical Magic

There is no magic formula, no conjuring spell. No eye of newt, and toe of frog. No wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

Oh, you’ll find a few who would claim otherwise – people quick to sell you the secrets to a guaranteed bestseller. But they are charlatans. Or fools.

There is no such thing as a magic formula for a guaranteed bestseller.

You can’t reverse-engineer J. K. Rowling’s books, find out what makes them tick, then build a better Hagrid. You can’t boil Hunger Games down to the bones then wrap new, equally tempting skin on it.

The secret of a bestselling book is mostly invisible, organic, unpredictable; a creeping vine that winds through the words then burrows under a reader’s skin and wraps around the heart. It’s a thing that never quite reveals itself, proving its existence only by the trail of impossibly enthralled evangelists left in its wake.

Of course, this doesn’t stop writers and editors and publishers and pundits from trying to define its shape. And why not? We all want it – even those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.”

We want people to love our words. We want people to buy our books. Not because we’re particularly greedy. (We’ll only buy one Tuscan villa.) But because we want our stories to matter. To resonate. To change people. To inspire people.

And, yeah, to pay the bills so we have time and inclination to write more books.

There is no magic forumla for success.

There is, however, magic.

It appears unexpected. In a sentence that brings a gasp. In a twist that spins you dizzy. In the spark and crackle between words, the infinite ache below them, the impossible buzz above.

It’s what happens when the characters suddenly become real, when the plot takes on a life of its own. It’s the surprise that draws us closer to the monitor, unsure what just happened but longing for more.

It’s the root of that creeping invisible vine and we wants it, my precious.

So we chase it. We try to understand it. Corral it. Analyze it. Engineer it.

Sigh. Will we ever learn?

A writer can’t invoke magic. Story is its only enchanter.

And that, my friends, is the end of the post.

Yes, really.

What were you expecting? A formula? Sigh. Okay, try this: the better the storyteller, the more the magic; the more the magic, the happier the readers; the happier the readers, the more likely they’ll become impossibly enthralled evangelists. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

Now go out there and become a better storyteller. In case you’re wondering it’s a simple three-step process:

Read. Write. Repeat.

Have a nice day.

How Do You Know You’re Growing as a Writer?

I’m not sure how to open this post. I thought about playing the simile card and saying something about how becoming a better writer is a lot like becoming a better other thing – a better architect, a better juggler, a better OPI color namer, a better human. That would have been entirely true. And entirely boring.

I also considered manufacturing a conversation between a beginning writer and a seasoned writer that could foreshadow the post’s inevitable wisdom. I probably would have included an exchange like this:

Seasoned Writer: I’m told you want to know how I got to be me.

Beginning Writer: Yes. Tell me what to do, oh wise sage.

Seasoned Writer: Was that sarcasm?

Beginning Writer: Sarcasm? I’m not sure what you mean.

Seasoned Writer: Never mind. You want to know how to grow as a writer.

Beginning Writer: Yes, master.

Seasoned Writer: First of all, stop attributing wisdom to someone just because he’s older. Secondly, learn sarcasm. But most of all, read a lot and write a lot.

Beginning Writer: That’s it?

Seasoned Writer: Yup.

Beginning Writer: It’s that simple?

Seasoned Writer: Who said anything about it being simple? If it were simple, writers wouldn’t feel compelled to add one more thing to this list.

Beginning Writer: One more thing? There’s another thing to do? Tell me. I want to do it. What is it?

Seasoned Writer: Drink a lot.

But that sort of opening would have a 70 percent chance of inviting the eye-roll twins of obviousness and pretentiousness.

So instead, I’ll skip the meaningless drivel and get right to a list of things that answers the question posed by the post title. Here, then, is some meaningful drivel. I mean here are some clues that let you know you’re growing as a writer.

  • You are finally beginning to understand why some of your writer-friends enter a meditative state of humble reverence whenever the name Marilynne Robinson is mentioned.
  • You recognize your progression from careless adverb abuser to adamant adverb hater to champion of whatever word works best even if it’s an adverb.
  • You remove the pins from the voodoo doll that bears a striking resemblance to your editor and start dressing it in only mildly embarrassing outfits borrowed from your daughter’s Barbie collection.
  • You know when you’ve written a brilliant sentence and this knowledge brings a moment of pure pleasure that quickly morphs into something resembling abject terror.
  • Your mother/husband/bff unintentionally reveals what she/he thought about all your previous writing when commenting with unchecked surprise about your newest work, “You wrote this? Really?”
  • You’re reading fewer “how to write” books and blogs, not because you exhausted them all (you tried) but because you find that these days you’re learning more simply by reading great fiction.
  • You thought about starting a writing blog because you want to help other fledgling authors but then scrapped the idea because you’d rather be writing your novel and, really, how much time is there in a day?
  • You notice beginner mistakes in published works and, after a moment to decry the sorry state of traditional publishing, find yourself wondering if “smugness” is really so terrible a thing to feel after all.
  • You embrace the revision process not because you read somewhere that you’re supposed to but because you know it’s necessary.
  • You’ve gained ten pounds and can rightly blame five of those on the siren’s call of your laptop. (Feel free to blame the other five on the donuts.)
  • You’ve traveled from “truly inspired by” through “totally depressed by” to “often challenged by” another author’s brilliant writing.
  • You have a love/hate relationship with everything you write and welcome this as the necessary push and pull of critical thinking.
  • You look back at your early writing and convulse in laughter.
  • You look at your current writing and know that someday you’ll look back on it and not convulse in laughter so much as smile a knowing smile.
  • You have no idea where your thesaurus went and you don’t care.
  • You’ve stopped saying “I want to be a writer.”

This Could Be a Problem

I like languishing in obscurity. Languishing is my love language.

This could be a problem.

Well, not yet. But it will be if I reach any of my writing goals for the year, which include: a little book based on my #thewritinglife Twitter updates; the first novel in a YA series; a contemporary adult novel that’s been six years in the making; a few more blog posts; at least one provocative tweet.

You can’t have a successful writing career unless you embrace marketing and self-promotion.

I get it. If no one knows about you or your book, the book won’t sell.

In my past life as an editor in a traditional publishing house, I spent many hours in marketing meetings. I understand the rationale, the importance of planning, the risks and potential rewards. I find marketing fascinating. Nothing tests the creative process like trying to come up with ways to make every book a bestseller when your dollars are limited. Marketing meetings may be rooted in reality (“this is our marketing budget for the book”), but they’re fueled by big dreams. Even when pressed down by the weight of that reality, the air in most of my remembered marketing meetings was always thick with hope.

I inhaled that hope. I wanted each book to sell a million copies. I wanted each author to become a household name. I wanted to walk into Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes and Noble to see eager readers holding the books in one hand and open wallets in the other, their expectations high and about to be exceeded.

It was easy to believe this for other people’s’ books. But now I’m closing in on the reality that I soon will have a book (or three) of my own to unleash upon the masses. The closer I get, the more I long for obscurity.

This isn’t because I hate or fear marketing (see above). Nor is it some lame attempt to apply reverse psychology to my publishing dreams. (Unless it works. Then it was my intent all along.) I wish I were high-minded enough for it to be about letting the words stand alone, untainted by the evils of self-promotion. (I’m not.)

It’s just that I like obscurity. Obscurity is my favorite pair of pants.

Experts will tell you that marketing and self-promotion are games of chance you can’t afford not to play. They’re right. Absolutely right. Especially if you want to sell books.

I do.

This could be a problem.

Welcome to the Club

Sometimes I watch the Twitter-stream and think the New Digital World is a beautiful place. A place of generosity. A place of kindness. In the Sometimes you can almost hear people listening, nodding, patiently waiting their turn to add to the chorus. In the Sometimes, the digital shell dissolves and we’re in a small room together, face to face.

You mention a book. I say I know that book. You say isn’t it the best? I say it’s brilliant.

I sip my orange juice (it’s morning here). You sip your wine (it’s evening there).

How’s that novel of yours coming along? you ask. Slowly, I answer.

Loved your last blog post, I say. I needed to hear that today, you say.

I sip my orange juice. You sip your wine.

We quietly slip back into our lives.

And then there are the Othertimes. In the Othertimes the New Digital World is an ugly place. A place of easy exclusion. A place of selfishness. In the Othertimes I hear silent pronouncements, judgments, snide asides. In the Othertimes the digital shell becomes a wall and we’re only in a room together if I qualify.

You haven’t read Faulkner? Exluded.

You’ve read Twilight? Really? Excluded.

You don’t have an MFA? Excluded.

You don’t have a book deal? I mean a real book deal? Excluded.

It’s pledge week and you weren’t invited. It’s high school and you aren’t cool enough. It’s junior high and you buy your jeans at WalMart.

Oh, there is a cursory kindness. And there are moments when the wall comes down – but instead of a small room it often reveals a stage and they’re on it and you’re not.

In the Othertimes, an excluded novelist (blogger, agent, editor) smiles politely, accepts the Otherness and continues on. But there remains an ache. We don’t want to examine it for fear it’s stamped “jealousy,” but it’s there. Instead, we wave it off as nothing or employ a familiar safety protocol: cognitive dissonance.

We didn’t like that club anyway. They’re snobs. They’re elitists.

They’re successful.

Okay, maybe we do like that club.

A little.

Or a lot.

Maybe we wish we were invited to their literary soirees and their Seurat picnics and their balconies overlooking the sunset Seine. Or maybe we just wish we could sit in a small room and talk face to face. Have you read The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes? you might ask, and you wouldn’t change your opinion no matter what they said; you would say how much you loved it.

They would sip their champagne. You would sip their champagne.

No. You don’t like champagne.

You would sip your tea.

And you would feel better. Cooler.

Accepted.

Would you?

Or you could forget about the Othertimes. Ignore them. Glide right through them. Perhaps you could stop, look around, and realize you’re already in a pretty good club. A club that matters.

Do you write? You qualify. Do you edit? You qualify. Are you an agent? A blogger? You’re in.

Have a seat. We talk about books here. Books and writing and publishing. And chocolate.

We don’t care how many followers you have or where you live or what you’re wearing. You can even use adverbs and sentence fragments here. Freely.

Sometimes the New Digital World is a beautiful place.

Like right now.

So…how’s that novel of yours coming along?