Doing You: Navigating the Sea of Writing Advice

A red tulip standing alone in a sea of daffodils. Text: Something for Sunday; August 4, 2019; Doing YouIf you’re a writer, you’ve no doubt been deluged with writing advice. Not all of it is helpful. Not long ago, Danielle Dutton wrote a column for LitHub describing advice she called “terrible,” even though it all came from famous published authors. Her list ranges from the picayune (“Don’t use semicolons” – Kurt Vonnegut) to the vague (“Write only when you have something to say” – David Hare) to the positively misanthropic (“Don’t have children” – Richard Ford.) More recently, Jonathan Franzen posted his list writing tips that annoyed so many people it triggered an avalanche of counter-lists on Twitter.

Can we find advice that’s actually useful? Jeff Somers, who wrote a book expressing his personal view of this issue (Writing Without Rules), addressed one specific example: Do you really need to write every day? Maybe that’s not the best way to think of it. Read his comments (and watch the 2-minute video of him discussing it, with his cat). I like how he gives us a different way to think about this piece of advice, instead of throwing it out all together. Jami Gold took up the same recommendation in her blog, and included the popular phrase “You do you” as part of her blog title. Like Jeff Somers, she concluded that each of us needs to find our own balance between writing and all the rest of life. More broadly, Joe Fassler wrote his own article for LitHub abstracting seven key principles from the conversations he had with 150 successful writers. I’m happy to say there’s nothing here about semicolons and no bans on having children. I find this list more useful than the others I’ve read. It’s interesting that it ends with the line, “Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.”

Here, then, is my list of sure-fire, guaranteed, solid gold tips for writers.

  • If reading writing advice makes you anxious or unsure of your ability to succeed, stop reading it. Yes, right now. Yes, that includes this list!
  • If you do read advice and something seems like it might work for you, give it a try. Remember, though, that it’s just a date, not a marriage. Give it a shot and see if it works. If not, kick it to the curb and don’t look back.
  • If you see a suggestion that sounds completely outlandish but doesn’t offer any actual harm, you can give that a try as well. Using Comic Sans for editing? Sure, why not? Talking out my scenes with a plush toy? What’s the worst that could happen? Go ahead and step out of your comfort zone, if you feel like it. It’s still not a commitment. You can keep it, ditch it, or modify it, depending on how it works for you.
  • Looking at the sea of advice, I notice one thing that shows up again and again: There are no rules. There are suggestions that can be adapted or discarded as needed, but no hard and fast rules. By all means, feel free to try something that works for others, but never assume the same thing will (or should) work for you. Play with the process until something clicks. How you write is not beholden to how anyone else in the universe writes.
  • When anyone tells you that a writer must do this or that, quote W. Somerset Maugham at them:"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." ~W. Somerset Maugham

The overall rule: You do you.

What techniques have you tried in your writing life? What works for you?

Revision Report

Once again, Camp NaNoWriMo provided the structure for me to complete a writing task. Two years after I wrote the first draft of my novel through Camp, this year I spent those 31 days on a complete, top-to-bottom revision, turning Draft 2 into Draft 3. This isn’t the finished draft by any means, but it’s closer. In addition to the day-by-day pressure to finish that I got from Camp NaNo, I also relied on the 31-Day Revision Workshop posted in Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog. Both forms of structure were important to keeping me going.

I learned some interesting things about my book and myself as a writer in this process:

  • There was so much excess that I needed to prune away! I probably took out a hundred examples of “that” and another hundred of “just.” I cut out dozens and dozens of unnecessary dialogue tags and bits of stage direction (he nodded, she shrugged…). I converted a ton of “he was X-ing” to “he X-ed.” I insisted my characters stop saying the same thing over again in slightly different words. I rooted out extra adjectives draped all over the place. There was so much that had to go, the book was about 1000 words shorter when I finished than when I began.
  • Yes, I tend to overwrite. But this doesn’t scare me any more, because I know it and I can find and eliminate it in revision.
  • I still like my book. There have been days when I didn’t, and nights when I can’t imagine what made me think I could be a writer, but when I come back to it I find there’s still something there that speaks to me. Kay’s story is important, at least here inside my head, and I’m going to keep pressing to tell it the best way I can.

So what’s next?

  • Running the whole thing through a computer system to get word frequency counts, so I can find and eliminate some more of the things I say too often
  • Revisiting the chapter breaks, since I have a nagging feeling that some chapters should be combined and others broken up
  • Putting it away for at least a couple of weeks, probably a month before looking at it again!

In the meantime, I’m pleased to be able to hang the Camp NaNoWriMo WINNER badge on the site. One small step forward in this very, very long process.


The First Draft Scare: A Halloween Tale of Terror

TreeGhostIt’s been a long time since I’ve been scared on Halloween, the American holiday that repackages fright and death into fun and games. But today, I got my heart pounding. Today was the day I hauled out the NaNoWriMo draft of my novel and looked at it for the first time since August.

It’s been almost a month since I promised to do this, and only three days before the day I’m committed to reading my opening to the good people at R-SPEC (Rochester Speculative Literature Association). I have been actively avoiding reading what I wrote, or even thinking about it very much. At first it was because, really, you should let your draft sit for a bit before you start editing. Everyone knows that, right? And then the school year started and I had a ton to do to get my classes off and running. And I keep finding other things to work on (this blog, for example). But I made a promise, and today I finally took that deep breath, squared my shoulders, and opened that scary folder, the one labeled Draft 1. And what did I see?

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Thinking About Creativity: Two Grids and a Sign #photochallenge


This week’s photo challenge was to put the grid, the rectilinear structure in a photo, front and center. In this photo of a construction site there are two different grids, plus a sign, that resonated with my writing life and with creativity in general, so I decided to use this image for the challenge this week.

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Shoveling Sand: In the First Draft Trenches #IWSG

SandcastlesTime for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, dedicated to helping out insecure writers around the world. This month the event is hosted by Alex Cavanaugh, Nancy Gideon, Bob R Milne, Doreen McGettigan, Chrys Fey, Bish Denham, and Pat Garcia. Many thanks to the awesome cohosts.

I’m most of the way through my first draft now (about 55K words into what I’m estimating will be around 70K when done), and I find myself reciting this quote from Shannon Hale every day: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box to that later I can build castles.”

I sit down and carve some words out of my head with a melon baller. Slap them on the keyboard, gore and all. Read them squirming on the screen. They’re embarrassed to be there, but I DON”T CARE. I need to reach my word count for today. Keep going. Remember, I’m just shoveling sand. This quote lets me just wipe down the keyboard (with tears, if need be) and move on.

I still believe in my story. Right now, though, I’m coming to the Dark Moment when my protagonist realizes that there’s absolutely no hope, no possible way forward, and gives up. It’s hard. It hurts. Don’t worry, she’ll get through it, and so will I. She doesn’t see the shining moment when she steps forward and saves the day, but I do. That’s the castle, waiting for me, and for her.

Once I get done shoveling all this sand.


Consistency: The Key to Success

USPSEnsignThis flag is the ensign of the United States Power Squadrons, a national organization dedicated to education, safety, and enjoyment of recreational boating, both power and sail. My husband, an avid sailor, is an active member, and this past weekend participated in a regional rendezvous. One of the events, the Predicted Log Contest, inspired this message.

In a Predicted Log Contest, teams work one at a time to row a dinghy over a course that has a known length as many times as they want, timing themselves and figuring out how fast they go. When they’re ready they are given a new course, told how long the new course is, and predict how long it will take them to row the new course. They don’t have access to any timing equipment at this stage. The team that comes closest to their predicted time is the winner. This weekend the winning team finished only 33 seconds off from their predicted time.

I love this contest, because it’s not about how fast or how strong you are. It’s about how consistent you are. It’s about setting a pace and sticking to it. That’s what makes you a winner.

The message is obvious, isn’t it? In many aspects of life the main thing is not to be outstanding or exceptional, but to be consistent and reliable. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Some days it’s easier, some days it’s harder, but you just keep showing up.

I’ve learned to apply this to my writing through the Camp NaNoWriMo experience last month. I set a goal for words each day and I stuck with it. Now that camp is over I’m still writing, albeit with a lower word-count goal each day, but I have learned to really appreciate the discipline of writing every single day, without fail. The point is to show up. The point is to be consistent. I don’t need to do marathons and have huge word counts in any given day. I just need to know what my own particular pace is, and stick with it.

That’s life, after all.

Starting Camp: #IWSG


Time for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, dedicated to helping out insecure writers around the world. This month the event is hosted by Charity Bradford, S.A. Larsen, AJ,Tamara Narayan, Allison Gammons, and Tanya Miranda!. Many thanks to the cohosts!

I have an obvious insecurity to report on today: Camp NaNoWriMo has begun! I’m only about 500 words in so far, and I’m nervous – I need to more than triple that number each day. Can I do it? We will have to see.

My big problem is tweaking. I wrote 550 words in about a half hour last night (starting right at midnight), then spent more than an hour this morning revising them. I know I have to just keep going. But it’s the opening! It’s the most important part of the book! It will determine whether a reader keeps going, or not!

Too bad! Just keep going.

But I changed the scene a little – it’s happening slightly later than it originally was. That change will affect what comes next, so of course I had to go through and make the change, or I can’t go forward.

Man, this is the main thing I have to fix.

Just. Keep Going.

Does anyone else have this problem?

Internet: Friend and Foe

00-3%talentI clipped this image years ago, and don’t remember any more where I got it (though it was, of course, somewhere on the Internet). It is so true! But the Internet is more than a distraction.

Don’t get me wrong – it is often a serious distraction. When I sit down at my computer, first I launch a browser and check my email, my Facebook newsfeed, my feed reader, my Twitter feed, and a whole set of web comics. I download a couple of daily puzzle games and solve them. This whole process can take half an hour. Then, while writing, I get the urge to check a feed here, look up a fact there. This can be a serious time suck.

On the other hand, the Internet has been an important source of three things that are very important.

  1. Information. I don’t mean just facts, research needed for the book, though this is important as well. I mean a lot of tips and guidance for the writing process. I have gotten so much from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, Writer Unboxed, Paving my Author’s Road, and many others. Though I’m a long way from submission, I’m storing up wisdom from Janet Reid’s blog. I would not be ready for this upcoming draft without them.
  2. Motivation. There’s no source like the Internet for inspirational images and quotes (such as the one I highlighted above). One thing I did in preparation for July is assemble a playlist of such images, one for each day of the month. I’ll be posting them daily over on my WordWacker Facebook page, if you want to follow along.
  3. Support. Camp NaNoWriMo has allowed me to link up with ten other folks as I work toward my writing goal next month, in a group they call a cabin. They all happen to be women (Hi! *waves*), and we’ve been chatting for a couple of days now, getting to know each other and and affirming each other’s goals and plans. I’m sure that their encouragement will be crucial in the weeks to come.

So how will I manage these contradictory aspects of the Internet in my NaNo month? I’m going to begin each day with my usual scan of my feeds and updates; I know I won’t be able to skip that. I’ll check in with my NaNo cabin mates for mutual support. I’ll post my daily image on my Facebook page. Then, with this ritual behind me, I’ll shut off my WiFi and start writing. My daily goal, based on 50,000 words in 31 days, is 1,613 words per day, and I’ll allow this in two separate sittings, so a minimum of 800 words before I’m allowed to get back on WiFi. If there’s something I need to look up for what I’m working on, I’ll just make a note of it right in the file and keep going. I can come back to it later.

I’ll be posting short updates, word counts, and, of course, the daily inspiration images on my Facebook page. Here on the blog expect fewer posts, perhaps only one per week. I need to be focused on NaNo.

Wish me luck!