Out of My Head: Advice vs Rules

People wanting to write are hungry for advice.  (Myself, I was starving.)  Everyone wants the magic bullet, the password, the secret handshake, the keys to the kingdom.  The secret of it all is that there is no secret, only lots of hard work.   Anything else is misdirection.

It’s the idea of what’s right that can trap people, everything that is couched as “you should…” or “a pro always…”  They’re all trying to entice  you with the red pill.  “Buy my book!  Attend my seminar!  Sign up for my workshop!”  And that’s dangerous.  With apologies to The Matrix, there is no red pill, no One True Path.  There are only blue pills.  Thousands of them.  Each one a writer with opinions to sell, and none of them quantifiably objective.

Robert Heinlein’s advice on the matter was simple and straightforward:

  • Write
  • Finish what you write
  • Put it in the mail
  • Keep it in the mail until it sells
  • Never revise except to editorial request

Author Jay Lake posited that the only universally true advice for writers is “Write more”.  Everything else falls into the trap of individualized process.  What one writer passionately believes could be nonsensical or even destructive to another writer.

The trick with advice is sorting out how to apply it.

Lake again: We’re all Viktor Frankenstein, sewing body parts in the basement.  (I love that imagery!)  There isn’t a right way, there’s just your way.  And my way.  And anyone else’s way.

The difference between Rules and Advice is an easy one: Writing Rules are spelling, punctuation, grammar, manuscript format, the difference between nouns and verbs.  They’re what we learned in English class.  We collectively agree to them so as to make the process of reading and writing coherent.

Advice is: “don’t begin your story until you have a firm understanding of character, setting, and problem.”  That’s an opinion, nothing more.  Take or ignore advice as you wish.  Writing is a profoundly idiosyncratic business.

The point?  Try not to read how-to books and think “I’m doing it wrong.”  If something you read strikes you as interesting or worthwhile, go for it.  Every writer has to discover for themselves how to get it right.

So before you go running down to the dealer’s room, or to the store, or pay lots of money for workshops or seminars or online classes looking for that one perfect book about writing, the one that’s tailor made to suit your unique voice and strengths…  Stop.  That book isn’t going to be there.  It doesn’t exist.  You haven’t written it yet.

All of that being said, here are my own rules to live and write by.  Relax, there are only two:

Rule #1: Be honest (don’t try to be clever).

Being clever is calling attention to yourself.  You’re letting the words be more important than what you want to say.  Your job as the writer is to be invisible.  Declaring your presence with overwrought prose is not being invisible.

Rule #2: Steal from the best.

Learn from those who have actually done what you want to accomplish yourself.  Which authors first inspired you to take up pen and paper?  Who rocks your world, and how do they do it?  Embrace the writers who resonate with you most and incorporate them into your own work.  Try to sound like them.  Your unique voice will separate itself out as your skills and confidence grow, built upon a successful foundation of those who came before you.

Ultimately, there’s only one thing to remember: No one has ever written a perfect book.  But you keep trying.  That’s what it’s all about.


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