Six impossible things

Worst and Best Advice

“What are the three worst or best bits of writing advice you’ve ever been given?”

Somebody asked me that a while back, and it took me a while to come up with a reasonable answer, because at least one of them was perfectly horrible advice for me…but it would have been very fine advice for several of my friends. And usually when people ask what the best or worst advice is, it’s because they want to know which bits of common writing advice they can ignore, or which bits they need to pay particular attention to. Unfortunately, a lot of writing doesn’t work like that.

The “first worst” bit of writing advice is one of those “bad for me, but maybe good for you” ones: Write short stories first, and then “move up” to writing a novel. The reasoning behind this piece of advice came in two main parts: 1) Short stories are short, maybe 5-10% as many words as a novel. So going by word count, a novice writer could write ten to twenty short stories in the time it would take him/her to write a novel, which would give said writer lots of practice in all the things one needs to do to complete a story and lots of practice in the submitting/selling side of things. 2) It is a lot easier to sell a novel if you have a track record of finishing and selling other things, which of course writing short stories would allow you to do. (Ha!) There was also 3) Novels are Big Important Literary things, which ought not to be tackled by novices; if you didn’t start with short fiction and Pay Your Dues and Learn Your Craft and Demonstrate Your Worth, the Novel Police would come and haul you off to Alcatraz or Siberia or somewhere similar.

Unfortunately, #1 and #3 are total strike-outs. I have never met a writer who could write twenty 5,000 word short stories or ten 10,000 word short stories in the same amount of time it took them to write a novel. I know very, very few writers who can write a novel in the same amount of time it took them to write their last novel. It just doesn’t work that way. And there aren’t any novel police, however much some folks seem to wish there were. Editors aren’t even Novel Police; they don’t reject novels because You Have Not Demonstrated Your Worth, they reject them because their list is full or they don’t think they can sell enough copies to break even.

As for #2 – it is technically true that IF you have a track record of finishing and selling short stories, selling your first novel will probably be easier, but getting that track record depends on actually finishing and selling things. And if you are, as I am, a natural novelist, it will be a whole lot easier to write a passable first novel over the course of five years than it will be to write four or five dreadful and unpublishable “short stories” that are more like novel outlines than short stories. As a result, you will get farther, faster, by following your own inclination than by trying to base your choice of what to write on math, logic, or someone else’s “shoulds.” Yes, that means that if you are a natural short story writer, you can wave this particular bit of writing advice at people who insist that you should write novels (because you can’t make a living any more writing short fiction).

The second worst bit of writing advice I got early on is another one of those “bad for me, maybe not for you” ones: Don’t talk about your stories to anyone until you have written them. The theory behind this one seems to be 1) telling people the story will kill your desire to write it and/or 2) if you talk about it, people will give you advice and you might – oh, horror! – be influenced by them! In this case, #1 is most definitely true for some writers (undoubtedly the ones who made up this advice are among them), and most definitely not true for me and many of my other pro-writer friends, who sit around happily discussing our plots for months while our books are under development. If you are a talking-kills-the-book writer, then don’t talk; if you are a talking-gets-me-excited-and-motivated writer, take your friends out for a gab fest.

#2 places some kind of primacy on the author’s original, pristine vision or inspiration…which frankly does not deserve this kind of veneration. Well, not unless you hang out with a bunch of really stupid people who give you bad advice, but I hang out with smart people who point out my plot holes and throw out tidbits that spark other ideas and generally make my books far better than they would otherwise be. I don’t see how influence that improves my work is a bad thing.

The third worse bit of advice was the classic “Write what you know.” Fortunately for me, I write fantasy, and as it is a) blatantly obvious that neither I nor anyone else can ever know what it is really like to live with a dragon or cast a magic spell, and b) equally obvious that lots of writers produce stacks of fantasy novels and make their livings doing so, I never really took this one seriously. I was, in fact, badly taken aback when a high-school student who had swallowed this advice hook, line, and sinker, asked me, in all seriousness, whether he should ride his bicycle off his parents’ garage in order to “come as close to flying as possible.” I spent considerable time saying “no, certainly not!” in as many ways as I could think of, along with pointing out that people who write murder mysteries are not all murderers.

I am still more than a little bemused by the number of would-be writers who really, really seem to want to follow all this bad advice (sometimes demanding exact details as to how many times they should visit a place before they “know” it well enough to write about it, or precisely how many short stories they have to write before they are “allowed” to write a novel…even after I have said, as plainly as I know how, that these bits of writing advice do not work for every writer, and that they have to discover for themselves whether they are among the folks it works for.

The best advice I ever got, on the other hand, applies to every writer I have ever met: Write. Finish it. If you want to be published, send it out and keep sending it out. This, too, is common knowledge, partly because it is pretty much the first piece of writing advice most published novelists give out when they are asked. Would-be writers keep coming up to me with this same question, though, and I can’t help thinking that it is because they are hoping to get some other answer.

They won’t get it from me.

12 Comments
  1. Ha ha, the “Novel Police” XD

    I was easily dragged down by your “second worst” advice. My creative writing teachers all told me this while I was working on short stories to achieve my minor in creative writing. I believed it wholeheartedly… and then I got into a writing group and found a great editing partner and pretty much everything my teachers ever told me went out the window.

    They weren’t very good teachers.

    Great advice at the end, by the way. 😉

  2. “But I hang out with smart people who point out my plot holes and throw out tidbits that spark other ideas and generally make my books far better than they would otherwise be.” <–Agree with this 100%.

    Also, I feel sorry for the poor boy who thought he had to ride his bike off the roof. Sheesh.

  3. On “writing what you know” … well, sometimes. You’re currently getting a chapter out of what you know about State Fairs.

    On the other hand, I got a chapter about a plane crash in _Point of Honor_ from reading the card in the back-of-the-seat pocket; and a chapter segment about a US Civil War virtual world from looking at a double-page spread in the newspaper advertising a TV spectacular on Gettysburg. (Not, I hasten to add, from the TV show itself, which I didn’t watch.)

  4. I think that Isaac Asimov said, about the “Writing what you know”, that he decided what he knew was science fiction.

  5. I’m not a writer, and yet this is still inspirational to me.

  6. There’s also the little problem that short story markets are not what they used to be, so it’s harder to break in that way.

  7. “I spent considerable time saying “no, certainly not!” in as many ways as I could think of, along with pointing out that people who write murder mysteries are not all murderers.”

    I am smiling as I imagine a murder mystery author handling criticism with “Oh, you think you know better than me, huh? What is *your* body count?”

    • At that point, I’d have to ask “Literal or figurative and do chickens count?” (I grew up on a farm, and we ate what we raised.)

  8. I think people often hear “write what you know” as “write what you have direct experience with”. But that’s not what it means. If you’re going to write a murder mystery where someone is poisoned, for example, obviously you don’t have to poison someone, but you should do research on poisons. If you just make up information about poisons instead, your murder mystery is not going to be very believable.

    I think “write what you know” also applies more generally. I think if you’re going to write in a genre, you should be familiar with that genre, with its tropes and with its readers’ expectations and with what has been done in the genre before you came along. I encounter a shocking amount of new fantasy writers who have a very poor understanding of the genre because they’ve read hardly any fantasy.

    • On your first paragraph: Agatha Christie was *great* on poisons, not because she ever poisoned anybody (not even her cheating rotter of a first husband), but because she was a trained pharmacist’s assistant, who served her country in that capacity during *two( World Wars.

      On your second: the really awful attempts at fantasy/SF are written by established literary figures who seem to have thought, “Well, that crap seems to sell, I’ll try my hand, surely I can write better crap than that.” But in effect his crap is worse than, say, _The Eye of Argon,_ which has a damn good sword-and-sorcery plot, although the language is, as we know, strange.

    • >If you’re going to write a murder mystery where someone is poisoned, for example, obviously you don’t have to poison someone, but you should do research on poisons.

      Which is what got Harriet Vane into trouble in Strong Poison… ; )

  9. A few years ago I did a count: first novel slots (big six as they were, plus reputable small publishers like Angry Robot etc) vs. short story slots in pro-rate markets filled with stories by not very well known writers (I think I set the cut-off at ten published short stories: this is about people breaking in being picked from the slush pile.)

    To my suprise, the numbers were almost equal.

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