Writing is the worst thing in the world, except when it’s the best thing in the world.
Do you want to write? Of course not. Nobody does. You want to be a writer. Here’s some advice that won’t help you…unless it does.
1. Don’t Take Criticism Personally. No, Wait. ALWAYS Take Criticism Personally.
Every writer knows that criticism is important and that you should never take it personally.
Someone looked at the words you personally selected, the sentences you crafted just the way you like, the plot you poured your heart and soul into, and then said, “I disagree with the choices you made, and by extension, everything you value and believe in.” Criticism is the ONLY thing you should take personally.
Ridding yourself of emotion isn’t a stairstep to success. Look at the great writers, and you know what they have in common? Crippling depression. Not taking things personally is for people who work customer service. Writing is supposed to be like this:
Of course, you still have to listen to the criticism. Because most of the time, they’re right. You are young and stupid, and don’t know what you’re doing. But just because they’re right, it doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. Let the emotions churn within you. Feel the sting of embarrassment. Embrace the rage of jealousy. Swear upon the old gods and new that “Oh yeah? Well, I’ll show you!” Because hurt feelings are fuel for change. Taking things personally is the only reason anybody ever improves at anything.
2. Don’t Edit Until You’re Done…Unless You Really Need To
As a young writer, you may have the tendency to edit and re-edit your work in a pointless pursuit of unattainable perfection. So most older writers tell you to not edit your work at all until you’ve finished your first draft.
And I suppose that works for some people. And if you can just put all your past mistakes out of your mind and keep writing, that’s great.
But if you’re a normal human being, there are going to be mistakes you’ve made that just nag at you. And sometimes they’re as easy to fix as adding a comma or changing the weather. Changing the weather in your book, I mean, not in real life.
And if you never fix any of those mistakes, they start to build up in your mind, until you’re overwhelmed by all the problems with your book. If it’s so full of holes, why even finish it?
So if you know how to fix something, go back and do it. And then say, “Wow, I was so stupid when I wrote this, but look how much smarter I am now! Just imagine how much smarter I’ll be the next time I edit!”
And, like gangrene, small problems can lead to big problems if left untreated. A poor character decision at the start of your novel can throw the whole plot out of whack, and changing it after the fact is like trying to relay a cross-country railroad track.
3. Write On A Schedule…A Chaotic Schedule That Is Always Changing
Some writers affectionately refer to their work-in-progress as “my baby”. Why? Because the love and care you lavish on it will one day be returned to you when it matures?
No, because it wakes you up in the middle of the night and won’t stop screaming until you feed it. And when you want to show it off to your friends, all it wants to do is poop its pants.
Books, like babies, are no respecter of schedules. Inspiration strikes at 2 a.m. when you have a meeting the next morning, and dries up as soon as you have a few hours of free time. The final clue for your serial killer murder mystery pops into your head just when you’ve gotten to the furious kissing part of your dinner date and ruins the mood for everybody.
Babies usually grow up and become productive members of society. But books, like the writers that pen them, never do. They will never understand that you have a life with needs of your own, and will never appreciate what you do for them. That is what you signed up for when you decided to start this, and if it isn’t what you wanted, then maybe you should have thought about that BEFORE YOU GOT HER PREGNANT!…with…the idea for that book. Metaphor kinda got away from me.
4. Write In The Morning…Unless You’re Not A Morning Person
I don’t know why, but people worship waking with the rise of the sun like Apollo is sitting around glaring at you for sleeping in. And I suppose mornings are fine, if you’re the sort of person who likes waking up and doing things. But if you want to be a writer, best put any silly notions of doing things out of your head.
Night is when the mind’s filters come off. Night is when imagination and reality schmooze together and start contemplating what their love-child would look like. Plus, sleep deprivation is a cheaper alternative to mind-altering drugs, the usual mainstay of creative types.
Or you can follow the pattern of famous authors and wake up any time you damn well please!
5. Read A Lot, And Then Stop. Forever.
Reading’s amazing. It’s why you wanted to be a writer. You read all these cool books growing up and thought, “I want to do that too!”
But now you’re banging out your magnum opus about Nietzschean philosophy and sentient carbohydrates and it’s stupid. It’s the stupidest book in the world. And you think, “Why should I write this stupid book when there are lots of amazing books out there I could be reading?” And then you go read them and never write again.
Convince yourself that other books are not real, that you just dreamed about them once. Convince yourself that books will never exist unless you bring them into being. When friends tell you about the new Terry Pratchett novel they just read, plug your ears and scream, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT! STOP USING NONSENSE WORDS ABOUT THINGS THAT DON’T EXIST YET!”
Because if books don’t exist, it doesn’t matter how stupid your first draft of God Is Bread is. It will be the best book in the world because it will be the only book in the world.
6. Force Yourself To Write…Unless You Really Don’t Wanna
Ask any famous writers worth their salt, and they will tell you that writing is more painful that sitting through a Glee marathon. But then they’ll reassure you that you should push through the pain, because it’s totally worth it, or something.
SO WRITE EVERY DAY! EIGHT HOURS STRAIGHT! MEET THAT WORDCOUNT! LIFT THAT BALE!
If writing hurts more than shoving bees up your nose, stop doing it! Give it a break for a few months. Find out if it’s really what you want to do. And if you never find yourself drifting back to it, maybe it’s not who you were supposed to be.
And if you are doomed to be a writer, you’ll come crawling back of your own accord. You won’t be able to help yourself. More’s the pity.
7. Write What You Know, Except For All The Things You Don’t
When I wrote that novel about an transgender neo-Nazi raised in Georgia, people suggested I didn’t quite get his/her voice down right. Upon re-reading sentences like “Girlfriend, y’all should know betta than to interfeah with the glorah of the fabulous Fourth Reich, honey-chile,” I have to concede that they may have had a few points. So obviously, every time someone tells you to “Write what you know,” they must be right.
To that, I make this face.
If that were the case, interesting books could only be written by interesting people with interesting lives, and they’re never going to write them, because they’re too busy doing interesting things. If anyone’s going to write good books, it’s got to be boring people like you and me.
I’m never going to know what women are actually thinking, but I have to make a few educated guesses to keep my stories from turning into sausage fests. And if you can’t even guess, do research! Talk to people who know about other things…that’s part of the basic human experience! Sure, you’ll never really know how a V-8 engine works, or how it’s related to tomato juice. But they’ll never really know how to use a semicolon, so you’ve got that on them.
8. Write Only For Yourself…And Everybody Else
Everyone knows you can’t write for everyone. Eduardo likes peanut butter and Mitzi likes Nutella. You’ll never write something that satisfies everybody! So writers say the only audience you should ever worry about is yourself. Don’t write your book for anybody but you.
But if I may offer an alternative suggestion…
[prolonged fart sound]
Writing is a communication medium. It’s about transmitting ideas from one person to another, or to many. If writing wasn’t for other people, nobody would show anyone their writing, because sharing your work is terrifying and embarrassing. Writing solely for yourself is a little masturbatory.
What I think they mean is that you shouldn’t compromise your writing just so it will be liked by other people. Write something that you value and believe in, don’t just toady for others’ favor.
But you do have to consider your readers. Is your bad grammar getting in the way of legibility? Are you offending people for a good reason, or no reason at all? Does this metaphor supplement your argument, or does it merely distract readers with the image of Tony the Tiger in a speedo?
You don’t have to please everybody, but it should affect them. Scare them, inform them, inspire them, offend them. Make them angry or sad or suddenly aware of their divergent sexuality.
You can do things to people with writing. It’s legal. You should abuse that privilege every chance you get.
9. Follow All Writing Advice…Except For All Of It
Pretty much every author out there has a list of writing rules and advice for aspiring writers. Do you know why? Let me ask you a different question. Remember that novel you read (I know we decided books don’t exist, but just pretend), that one by the new up-and-coming author the review billed as “the next Tom Clancy”? Do you remember that up-and-coming author’s name? Of course you don’t. You remember Tom Clancy.
THAT IS WHY WRITERS GIVE WRITING ADVICE. Because if you follow it, you’ll become a slightly less awesome version of them and remind everybody why they liked the original author in the first place.
So don’t follow their advice! Or mine! Personally, I stand by most of my advice, but for you it would most likely suck. It works for me because I’m broken in just that particular way. But you’re broken in different ways. So go out there and write, learn everything the hard way, make up your own stupid writing advice, and put it on your own stupid blog.
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Nathan Biberdorf has written nothing ever and all his advice is stupid. Here’s some more.