When Good Advice Goes Bad
Writing advice is pretty much everywhere in the writing community, shit even I have an entire category on this blog called “Underqualified Advice” because I at least believe in truth in advertising. And for the most part, the advice you read is well-intentioned, if not always effective. I’ve covered this a few times before, but the hard truth about the publishing world is that no one knows what works 100% of the time, otherwise publishers and authors would churn out nothing but hits. We only know what works best for us, with the results being weirdly impossible to duplicate at times, and even then sometimes what worked in the past suddenly fails in the present. Take advice, even the well-meaning and honest kind, with a grain of salt is my point here.
Outside of that, however, there are some tidbits of “wisdom” that get tossed around pretty freely, so much so that they’ve begun to get divorced from their real meaning and are turning into actual bad advice. In honor of the last Friday of this year’s NaNoWriMo, these are a couple of the ones I wanted to look at today, and we’re going to kick-off with the bit I think I see used the most often and the most detrimentally.
Kill Your Darlings
What really means: If you love something, but it isn’t good for the story, then you have to be willing to cut it.
How it’s wrongly used: If you like it, cut it.
So I’m going to have to preface this whole blog with an acknowledgment that to many of you, this is going to be a big ole “duh”. If you’ve been around for a while, the real meaning here is clear, and you wouldn’t mistakenly take the wrong form of the advice. Where this is dangerous is mostly for newer writers, the ones still finding their footing and seeking out wisdom from those who came before, sometimes following it even when it seems incorrect, because succeeding at writing is still a weirdly arcane, mysterious topic from the outside.
With everyone’s ego properly soothed, let’s take this one apart. Killing your darlings means being ruthless for the sake of a story. Because the book as a whole has to be your primary objective, the novel can’t exist to support one scene or character. If there’s an element that makes one character better but the book worse, then it should go. It can be hard, too. I’ve mentioned before that it took me two drafts before I hit the right set-up for Forging Hephaestus. There were other characters and ideas in those earlier drafts, ones I really loved and wanted to write about, but at the end of the day they were pulling down the overall story. Losing them, sometimes with replacements and sometimes without, was a big part of finally getting the book right. That’s what it means to kill your darlings.
On the other hand, just having a component you like isn’t inherently bad. Sticking with FH, I love the side-character Johnny Three Dicks. Writing for him cracked me up, and I like to think that helped more levity make it onto the page, especially in scenes where we needed a lighter tone. Johnny wasn’t bad for the book, although he also wasn’t integral, he was just a good comic relief opportunity that I had fun with. Liking him didn’t mean he had to go, because he wasn’t dragging down the story. Being ruthless for the sake of the book is one thing, but the idea of cutting everything you love is silly. It’s your book, putting passion and love into it will make things better, as long as you’re willing to cut them if the story demands it.
What it really means: Writing is a long process, so doing a little bit everyday helps you practice as well as add to your output.
How it’s wrongly used: You aren’t a real writer, or aren’t trying hard enough, unless you write every single day.
Writing a book is a weird process. For a very, very long time it feels like you’re doing nothing, because seeing numbers tick up on a word processor isn’t the same as seeing a house being built. There’s nothing tangible, no piece to place your hand upon and say “I did this” with a sigh of pride. What is worse, most authors suffer from so much insecurity that we never feel sure that what we’ve created is any good, so even when we’re done we don’t feel sure our efforts weren’t a waste of time.
It’s easy to get discouraged during that process, it’s why I know a lot of people who enjoy writing but a relatively small percentage of them have finished a book. Demanding that you do something each day, perhaps only a hundred words or so, is a solid method to force yourself along through the hardest parts of the novel. It makes you keep going even when you don’t feel the progress, and helps you eventually reach the ending. “Write everyday” is a fine technique to help new writers gain confidence and overcome a lot of the common hurdles we all face. It is not, and never has been, the mark of a true writer.
Being in the business, I talk to a load of other writers, and virtually none of us follow that rule. I’ve got what is considered to be a very high wordcount output, and I only write on weekdays. There are times when the very act of being a writer means I can’t writer, such as when I need to spend days doing edits and reviews to ensure a book is polished enough for publishing. Hell, sometimes I’ll take an entire week off just to read other people’s works. Beyond the fact that there is more work to being a writer than writing, we all need breaks from everything. I fucking love watching Arrested Development, but if you put it on 24/7 pretty soon I’d want a break to watch Good Place or something else. Resting is important, mentally recharging is important, life outside of work is important. Writing a little everyday is a good habit to get in; however, it should by no means feel like a box you have to check in order to count as a “real” writer.
The big takeaway here should be about the same as with every bit of advice that centers on writing: be skeptical, and remember that even when someone is trying to give you honest help it might not work. Writing is very much a process of figuring out your own methods and tactics to do your best, I know some who can fly in the face of every piece of common knowledge yet still succeed, while others follow the rules and have trouble getting traction. I also have met the exact opposite, people who tried to go around conventional wisdom only to hit nothing but walls while others walked the worn path with relative ease. Just remember, there is no silver bullet, no one trick to make it all click. Writing is trial and error, slow progression, and a constant education on what works best for you. Even my advice might not work for a lot of you, and that’s okay. Because if you really love it and keep plugging away, eventually you’ll find you own best practices, and that’s a big part of the journey as well.