Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bad writing advice

I've read an embarrassing number of books about the craft of writing. Some have been very good, some less so; a few have been full of actively bad advice. But I've been slowly learning that none of them have what I'm looking for. And none of them ever will. Like people who collect diet books or exercise manuals, I know that at least subconsciously, I'm looking for a magic pill. I'm inherently lazy, and I'm hoping that I'll read some piece of advice that will make everything click -- that will make writing into something that isn't work.

This is a dangerous idea to carry around. It carries with it the assumption that becoming really good at writing -- at anything, for that matter -- will ever be easy. It's nice to believe that the only thing standing between me and fabulous prose is some clever bit of advice that will trip some switch in my head, and I'll suddenly turn into John Updike. It's a nice, happy belief, that somewhere inside is this Great Writer, just waiting to be freed. But it's not true, even for the very best. Being good at something is a skill you acquire through regular effort and a truly stunning amount of practice. Talent helps, I think -- it makes your practice more efficient, so you don't have to do quite as much of it. But no amount of talent will make you any damn good unless you work at it, and work hard. In that regard, maybe the only really valuable piece of writing advice I've ever read was, roughly: it's important to realize that the first million words you write will be crap; the key to a successful writing career is to get those million words out of the way as quickly as possible. (I heard this attributed to David Eddings, but I can't find it now.)

The other danger is that reading about writing is yet another write-ish behavior that feels writing-related and doesn't trip my mental I'm-Wasting-Time alarm, but gets me no closer to finishing a novel. I've got a lot of write-ish things I do, and I'm trying to be more aware of them and cut them from my schedule. I just need to be constantly aware when I'm doing stuff that feels productive, without actually producing anything.

That said, I'm not ditching my collection of writing guides. In small doses, they serve the important function of being inspirational. As long as I'm not reading them instead of writing, a little inspiration is a good thing. But I'm now aware that I'm no longer looking for The Answer. I'll occasionally look for an answer; Orson Scott Card's book on character is a classic, f'rinstance, and has answers to questions I ask a lot. But I know there's no magic there....

---edit---

Just noticed -- this was my 1,000th post here. I've got mixed feelings about that. On the one hand: cool! Landmark! On the other, look at all the time I've spent writing, none of which got me any closer to finishing a decent novel....

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