When well-intentioned writing advice goes bad…

butterfly-quote

I framed this quote, a reminder to follow and trust my own heart.

While studying creative writing in undergraduate and grad school, I participated in countless writing workshops. I’ve been a member of critique groups and read countless writing books. But there’s one thing I’ve only recently come to realize: Sometimes people’s writing advice is bad.

Well, let me clarify. It’s not necessarily bad advice. It’s just bad advice for you.

I’m not talking about craft. “Don’t head-hop” is a good rule to follow, and you break it at your own peril. Three-act structure seems to be ingrained in reader’s minds, and we often subconsciously know when it isn’t followed. A book that starts too slowly and leads readers to put it down, for example, might have a first act that’s too long. No, the basic rules of writing hold, and everything I learned in undergraduate and grad school taught me and reinforced those rules.

But then I emerged, M.F.A. in hand, into the wide world of writing, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have my professors to guide me. So I turned to writing books and that experience, by and large, has been a productive one, a continuation of my education as a writer.

But some of those books have poisoned the well for me, and there’s a simple reason. Sometimes people think that what works for one writer will work for another, and they present their process as an absolute, a formula anyone can follow that leads to success.

And I’ve attempted those methods, those processes, and failed, and slammed into the brick wall we call writer’s block.

That’s when my husband, a non-writer (an IT guy, if you must know), suggested that I take a break from writing books. “They’re causing you to stop writing. You already know how to write. You just need to do it.”

Yeah, he was probably right.

When I first started on my writing journey, I was (and still am) super-curious about other writers’ processes. One writer writes 500 words a day, religiously. Another feels 1,000 words is the sweet spot, and still another says 2,000 words is the minimum quota for professional writers. One writer proofreads but never revises. Another says she writes ten drafts. Still another writes the first draft, puts it in a drawer, and starts over.

And what I’ve learned is that my own process is a constantly evolving creature, changing as I grow as a writer and matching no one else’s. I know the rules of writing. I can urge and cajole a story into three-act structure. I can see when a character arc isn’t working or isn’t strong enough. I can see when a story starts to drag. And I can understand the feedback beta readers give me. “The opening is too slow.” “He doesn’t have much of a character arc.” “There’s too much backstory.” “Up the romance factor.” I know how to fix a story to fix the problems their keen eyes have noticed.

I know how to write. But when I read books about process and try to stuff my writing routine into someone else’s process, well, ugh. Things just grind to a halt.

So from now on, I will follow the process that works for me. Two of my stories, a novella and a novel, have won awards. I’ve published two novelettes and written a number of manuscripts. I can do this—because, well, I’ve done it before.

I just need to close the freaking door, shut everyone else out, and work with all the knowledge that’s in my own mind, the feedback from trusted beta readers and CPs, and listen to the stories whispering in my ear.

For me, that’s all I need at the moment. And in the future, I will be wary of trying to stuff my round-peg process into the square-hole I found on someone else’s blog, or in an author interview, or in a craft book. There are rules to the craft of writing. But ultimately, when it comes to process, we need to learn our own. Creativity comes to all of us in different shapes and forms. We need to follow our intuition and go our own way.

After all, if we want our stories to be fresh and unique, we must be ourselves, whomever we may be.

ROW80 Check-In:

  • Do something writing-related every day, seven days a week: journal, write a poem, take notes on a story, read a writing book, brainstorm, etc. Missed a couple days, but progress is being made. I started revising a novelette and expanding it to novella length. Previously titled White Wolf, Red Cloak, I’ve retitled it Fates Entangled, upped the paranormal/magical factor by adding in a touch of witchcraft, and am expanding it to about 20K from the original 15K. And I’m upping the heat factor as well.
  • Reconnect with my spiritual practice. Reading The Art of Bliss by Tess Whitehurst.
  • Start a regular yoga practice. Nope.
  • At least twice a week, explore another creative outlet, anything from scrapbooking to cooking to home decorating or Feng Shui. Decorated for Yule/Christmas. Baked chocolate-banana bread. Stocked up on some more scrapbooking supplies. Bought a frame so we can have a large print of one of our wedding portraits made and hang it in our bedroom.

A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life, is now on Facebook. Join us!

Ever-curious about fellow writers’ creative processes, I’d love to hear yours. Have you ever gotten advice on process that’s led you astray? What is your process like?

denise signature

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5 thoughts on “When well-intentioned writing advice goes bad…

  1. It’s great you found a process that works for you, Denise. As far as my process, I have tried different things. Like you said, what works for one doesn’t work for another. There is one thing I am trying to implement in my process.

    I’m bad about editing while writing a draft on any electronic device. So, while writing a particular story, instead of going to the laptop right away, I wrote my draft longhand. I used a strategy I apply to journaling: write without stopping to edit. Kind of stream-of-consciousness. I focused on getting the story out and blocked my critical self until the draft was finished. It worked. After a couple days rest and revising, I put the draft on my laptop, implementing the changes I put in. Then, I send it to anyone willing to read and critique. I don’t have a go-to person for that; I just put it out there for anyone willing to read my work.

    The one thing I got out of writing this way is that I’m less tempted to edit if it’s on physical paper. I can enjoy writing without it feeling like actual work. So I am going to apply that process to every story.

    • That sounds like a great process. I love the sensation of handwriting. Although these days I do most of my writing on my laptop, I still try to make time for actually writing something longhand–even just a journal entry. I think it’s easier to wake up our creativity, or beckon it to us, or whatever you’d like to call it, when we have pen/pencil and paper. It’s less intimidating, and yes, it does make it easier to silence our inner critic. Thanks, George!

  2. “Confession time;here’s what I’ve got:” *gratuitous Hamilton quote.

    Anyway, I left college a semester and a half into an English major with a concentration in professional writing, when I realized they could teach me how other people wrote – but I already knew how to write.

    I was oversimplifying. I know now that i could have learned a lot – but, for me, the autodidactic approach works best.

    I’ve read my share of writing books, too, but I don’t take anyone else’s process whole, unless it’s something I’ve never tried – and, even then, I usually end up adapting when I get the hang of the process.

    I choose one plotting approach each year, but, now that I’m on my fourth year of this, I incorporate it into the best elements of what I’ve already tried. Every new process helps me learn more about how I work, and gives me more tools to customize. Like you, I;m constantly evolving, and learning. Each project is different.

    I also use my fan fiction as a training ground, and a failsafe way to nudge my creativity. It’s my not-so-secret weapon!

    • I still love to learn about other writers’ processes, but I have to be careful not to think that there’s a tried and true way to approach the creative process. Everyone is different, and the artistic/writing world is filled with enough eccentrics to prove that–night owls, early risers, all sorts of interesting and sometimes strange processes. The thing is, over the years, I’ve learned what works for me. I just have to actually do it.

      I think that poetry is for me what fanfic is for you. It’s a place to experiment. I feel free when I do it. It doesn’t matter if nobody ever reads it because I got such great joy out of simply creating it.

      Thanks, Shan Jeniah!

      • I know exactly what you mean. I often see people touting things like a rigid writing schedule. Well, I’m an mom of two kids who are at ages where the changes come fast and furious – and the fact that we unschool means that our life, by definition, is more a matter of rhythms than routines. If my daughter wants to flop down beside me and chat and snuggle for two hours, I’m not telling her I’m “on the clock” and unavailable. She’s almost 12.5 now, and her brother is 15. I don’t have infinite time for these moments, and I can, if I choose to, write on a regular schedule when they’re grown.

        It’s so much better doing things the way that works for me, right now. It’s maybe the best advice I can give anyone – learn all you want, but don’t assume everything is for you.

        I love that you have poetry for that free feeling. I hid my fanfic away for decades. Sharing it feels right, now – but that’s not why I write it.

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