Good and Bad Advice

I’m at 18,000 words in my first draft. Things are going pretty smoothly, I guess. That’s just a quick update.

While I’m writing my draft, in my down time, I am, of course, checking out blogs and websites, and trying to get as much information and advice as possible about writing a novel, structuring stories, creating scenes and characters and so on.

I’m overwhelmed by the amount of useful information that is available on the internet. Blogs and websites like helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com or lindsayburoker.com are a real godsend to first time novelists like me. Their advice is inspiring and insightful, and I’m really grateful for them to be taking the trouble to put down their thoughts.

I really think that now is a golden age to be writing – twenty years ago, in order to find out about writing, you had to buy a whole load of books about it. These days, not only are there a lot of books, but also a plethora of information online on every single aspect of writing a novel.

I guess I should mention that there is also bad with the good. I’m not going to mention any names of websites, but the more I learn about writing, and the more I write myself, the more I realise that there are some people out there who don’t know what they are talking about. Yes, for every piece of good advice out there, there are equal amounts of bad advice – ill informed guesswork and received wisdom that will hinder rather than help the novice author. Here’s a choice few:

Only write about what you know: Yes, some people still come out with this old chestnut. Unless you have personal experience of an area, you are unable to write about it convincingly. What a load of crock. One of the wonders of the human imagination is its ability to imagine itself in any situation. With proper research and imaginative skills, a writer can write about what he or she likes. Why should a writer be discouraged from telling the story he or she wants to just because of this terrible rule?

Do you have a story to tell? – Another common piece of advice dished out to new writers by so called ‘experts’ asks whether they ‘have a story to tell.’ A professional author once asked me this, and I internally said “what? What a load of pretentious horse****!” Nobody ‘has’ a story to tell, any more than a watchmaker has a watch to make or a hairdresser has hair to cut. This is just mystical BS in my opinion, designed to elevate the writer to the status of guru or shaman. Don’t get me wrong: writing is difficult, and you need practice to get good at it like anything else. But don’t make it into some kind of mystical ritual.

A Room of One’s Own – Yeah, thanks, Virginia Woolf for propagating the idea that total privacy is a prerequisite for doing any kind of work. Most people these days work in open plan offices, whilst many people work in cafeterias, parks and even aeroplanes. What’s so special about a novelist that they need peace and quiet and a space where they won’t be disturbed before they can write. In this respect, I respect a writer like Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, who said that he wrote it in bars, because it was a social book, with a lot of people in it, and he wanted to reflect that. Also, Jo Nesbo, the no-nonsense thriller writer, creator of Harry Hole says that he regularly writes in airports.

There’s plenty of dumb bits of advice out there that are just as bad as these. In my opinion, the way to tell a bad bit of advice is when the writer says, “Don’t do X…” or “You must do X…” when you write a novel. There are no hard and fast rules. All a writer can do is offer their experience, and let you decide whether that advice is good for you. Any writer who makes their method law – like Elmore Leonard’s ridiculous rule about only using the verb ‘said’ after characters speak, or never using an adverb, like ‘said engagingly’ is nonsense. It might work. You don’t know until you’ve seen someone work it.

So – that’s my conclusion – the internet is the best tool a novice writer can have. Just take everything you read with the proverbial pinch of salt.

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