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Good Writing Advice to Ignore

Posted by Priscilla on February 28, 2013

Years ago, I went to my first writing conference with notepaper and pens, ready to take down every nugget of advice the workshop leaders shared. Surprise, surprise. The best instructor there spent the last session telling us to ignore the canards tossed around at conferences, in critique groups, and every time writers get together.

Here, for your pleasure, are three pieces of advice that I have come to believe we should ignore.

Advice #1:  Make your characters likeable.  

 

You’ve heard this one, right? Readers will become attached to characters who do likeable things. So have your protagonist pet his dog, and telegraph to the reader that he is cool. Serial killers probably don’t pet their dogs, the reasoning goes. Make her nice. Make sure he loves his mother. Show his Boy Scout honor.

Bor-ing.

Barry Eisler’s protagonist, John Rain, is a hit man. A murderer. But we root for him and care about him and want him to achieve his goals. In other words, we want him to succeed at killing. Why? Not because he’s a nice man. Not because he’s likeable. But because

1)   We are deeply inside his head.

If you google “Deep POV” you will find many writers talking about putting the character’s thoughts on the page:  “Rain attached his silencer. What the heck? It doesn’t fit.”

 

That is NOT what we mean. We could read thought after thought from Rain’s own mind and still not care about him. No. We care for Rain because we actually see the world through his eyes. Eisler uses rich details to reveal Rain’s inner soul. We know what he loves and what he fears; we know his dreams and passions. We don’t care that Rain is a hit man. What we care about is his vulnerability. This is true “Deep POV.”

 

2)   His need to kill makes sense in the story world.

Readers, even good, moral readers, will go along with almost anything if it makes sense in the world they have entered through your book.

 

Advice #2:  Write what you know

You probably already know that this is bad advice. What do you know? 1970’s Jersey shore? Camping in New Hampshire? Hunting deer? Start with what you know, but if that’s all you write about, you may soon run out of words. Are you not allowed to write about astronauts unless you work for NASA? Of course you are. That’s what research is all about.

Better advice: Write who you are. No one can do that the way you can. No one can research his or her way into the deep recesses that you already inhabit. The riveting story is the one that reveals what only you know about the world.

 

Advice #3:  Write every day

Guilt is no motivator. Flogging yourself does no good. Even if you glue the proverbial butt into the chair, you may not produce anything worth reading.

Better advice: Write when you’re ready. Now don’t take this as permission to write two pages this month and one paragraph the next. Rather, think of your story as fine wine that needs to age, or even Mulligatawny Stew that needs to simmer for the flavors to blend. Your story or essay will age and simmer as you dream, read, think, and dream some more. When you are ready, write.

 

What do you think?

Comments:

Posted by Keisha on
I love all of these tips, especially #3. Now I don't feel quite as bad when I don't write because I haven't gathered enough energy and ideas to make me sit down and organize them in a Word document.
Posted by Marianne on
Great insight. You've obviously been there.

Thanks.
Posted by Rosi on
This is great. I especially like number one because I found a new author I think I will really like. Thanks for the tips.
Posted by Rachel on
Such excellent advice, Priscilla! I especially love No. 3 ... and it's encouraging, because right now, at least, I know I am in a season where the Lord has me focused on writing papers (academic ones) and not prose. But most seasons come to an end, eventually, so there is hope that I won't be in a creative writing dry spell for what feels like "forever."
Blessings on this blog endeavor for you!
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