Writer’s Toolkit: Ignoring Expert Advice

Posted: January 25th, 2014 under Craft.
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Now this may sound ridiculous–why would a writer, especially a relatively inexperienced writer–ignore advice?  Especially expert advice, perhaps advice from a writer he/she admires?   Surely that’s exactly the advice to follow…isn’t it?

Sometimes.  And sometimes not.   Every writer has much to learn from other writers.    But every writer also has much to not learn from other writers.    (Yes, a very deliberate split infinitive.)  That’s because of the very nature of the writer’s connection to the writing.

Most of us have seen derivative writing–have even done derivative writing.  You fall in love with a certain writer, read everything they’ve written, and for the next six months or year or six years (depending on how much you write in that time)  their writing permeates yours with its distinctive flavor.   You may even want to be “the next [name your ideal.]”   What you write is not the same (because your own creativity, though smothered, is trying to express itself) but anyone reading your work (or any other enthusiast-for-someone’s work) can detect the influence.

If you read enough other writers, especially if you read widely across genres, historical periods, and (if you’re lucky) languages,  and you’re also attempting to write your own stories,  these influences will, like the carrots and garlic and beans and onions and celery in a stew gradually create a new flavor…your own authentic voice, as each element of each influence is picked up by your own talent and used to the degree that it can.   Your interests, your preferences, determine what you read (and thus what influences you pick up); your talent determines how those influences will emerge in your own work.  This is how a writing talent develops naturally.

But most of us (I include myself)  start looking for a fast track at some point.  We read books on writing.  We take classes, or attend workshops, or join critique groups.   Disclaimer: There is nothing wrong with any of these.  I’m not telling you to avoid them.   I didn’t avoid them.   But.   Classes, workshops, and critique groups are not a magical way to get past the amount of reading and writing that you need to do to become the writer you can be.   And.  All three of those will load you with advice, some of it expert advice,  and some of which is 100% wrong…for you.    Yet if a famous, best-selling, wealthy, or prize-winning writer–a writer you admire, a writer/editor/agent you agree is an expert hands down that advice…you may think you should follow it even if your own talent is tugging you another way.

Yes, of course, it may be something other than your talent tugging you another way  (“But I don’t WANT to go back and fix that structural problem in chapter five–I’d have to rewrite the whole !**! book!”)  That’s why you should hear what the expert says–but not too many experts in a row–and think about it.  Listen to your own voice.   Then take it or ignore it as you and your own voice decide.

I’ve said before and will repeat it until everyone is  tired of it:  there is no one right way to write a story.  There is no one right length for a story.   There is no speed (word count/day) that’s the right one to ensure quality; you cannot tell from the work whether someone wrote that paragraph fast, in one swift rush, or slowly, struggling with each word or phrase.   Writers are individuals, and each writer has his/her own way of telling the story.  Kipling, remember?   “And every single one of them is right.”

If the story works…if it raises the hairs on the reader’s arms, brings tears to the reader’s eyes, wrenches the reader’s guts,  makes the reader laugh at the right places, then it does not matter if you follow anyone’s advice or not…you’re right.  You’re right for that story.  You’re telling your story, in your own voice, and it’s the truth as you know it.

Does that mean all advice is wrong?   No.  Much of the advice (not all of it) given to writers in classes, workshops, and critique groups is useful for nearly all writers most of the time.   But a lot of it is nonsense, and any particular piece of it may be nonsense for you in a particular sentence of your work.   Don’t use fancy words.  (Right, like Shakespeare with “multitudinous seas incarnadine”??  Only a few writers can handle tubs full of fancy words in one story, but maybe you’re one of those few.  And anyone can handle a few of them.)    You should start with short stories and perfect your craft on them before trying a novel.   (Not if you’re a natural novelist, like me…I spent 20+ years trying to write short stories, unsuccessfully.   If your talent is long form,  go for it.)   Don’t write [genre, length, style, character type...] but instead write [genre, length, style, character type...]  (Raise hands, everyone who thinks Tolkein was advised to write very long, very unusual-at-the-time fantasy…right.  Not.    Or that Stephen King was told “You should start a whole new category as a horror writer.”   Writers succeed as themselves, not as market-bots, obediently following someone else’s idea of what they should write.)

Why does that work?    Because the best writing anyone can do is connected to the writer’s reality–the writer’s real experiences, real beliefs, real self.   The one thing writers have is their own unique, individual self and its voice–everyone has that much, but writers also have the will and the ability to bring that self and voice out as words.   Composers may do that in music, and painters may do that in paint, and sculptors in clay or marble or bronze…but writers do it in words.    Ability is partly inborn and partly the result of practice–the reading and the writing  provide the language skills and within language skills the particular writing skills, so the written language feels natural to the reader.   Will, however, is the desire that allows the writer to focus on his/her own work…do it without looking over the shoulder to see if it fits every bit of advice ever heard.

Back in ninth grade, when I was first really stretching as a juvie writer, I experimented with things I’d read in various books.  Like incomplete sentences.   Punctuation*!! innovation+& Fun wiTh uPPr & LoweR case & spelink.   After all, I was reading a lot of SF, and a lot of SF from back then messed with language, devising new vocabularies and spellings and…whee!   My very wise English teacher called me in one day and–without forbidding anything I was trying–said that I should have a reason for breaking rules, be able to state the reason, and the reason should be clear to the reader.   Also, assignments in class should be correct in grammar and spelling, which she knew I knew,  as an example to the kids in class who weren’t as good at it.    On my own time,  I could write any way I wanted to, and she’d be glad to look at it.   Mrs. Doty, you were a jewel!   She didn’t tell me not to write science fiction (others did) or adventure stories (ditto) or not to use long words…just the right kind of insistence that, at my stage, practice in standard English was required.

Every single one of them is right.”    You–if you’re working toward being a writer–have something no one else has–a unique viewpoint, a unique voice , and a unique gift to the world when you have read enough and written enough and lived enough to focus and let your story and voice come out in all its individuality.   It’s not accomplished by trying to be different,  or creative, or unique, but by being who you are, naturally, without strain, having absorbed all you can from others, and then…ignoring what doesn’t work for you…using everything in you to release your talent.

So as you read, and as you write, and particularly when you feel overwhelmed with conflicting advice from multiple classes, workshops, critique group members, blog posts,  editors, agents, anyone at all….you don’t have to swallow everything.   Ignore what doesn’t work for you.  If you need it later, you can go back and try it.   Ignore me, and my advice,  if what I’ve said just doesn’t click for you.    Being able to shut out what doesn’t work–what holds you back–and ignore expert advice that’s wrong for you–is an important tool in your kit.  Earplugs for the writer-brain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments »

  • Comment by elizabeth — January 25, 2014 @ 11:25 am

    1

    On the basis of some comments on Twitter and in email, let me add this new analogy: If you depend entirely on expert advice and feel you must follow it all…you’re like the rider who sits on the horse (your talent) while someone else controls it on a longe line or with a leading rein…and who is so afraid of doing something wrong that will cause catastrophe, that he won’t try riding independently. At best, you’ll be the person on a horse in a ring with a coach (or actually, dozens of coaches) all shouting instructions at once. “Less rein!” “Outside rein on the corner!” “Push him forward!” “Not so fast!” “Two-point now!” “No, sit up, wait until the jump!” “Follow his mouth!” “Crest release!” “Outside leg, outside leg!”

    If you imagine that hapless confused rider, with a dozen different coaches each with his/her own way of teaching (even in the same basic riding discipline) all calling out this advice at once…do you think that rider will learn much? No. At most, a rider will have one coach at a time, and the goal is to be able to ride a horse safely and competently in the open when there’s no coach anywhere around. A writer is in a like situation, only we’re faced with a multitude of coaches in different areas of writing, all handing out advice to a general audience–not you, the individual writer, with whose work they’re familiar. Just as a jumper coach is unlikely to be familiar with what a person riding in western pleasure needs to succeed, writers in one field may not know the fine points of writing successfully in another.

    At some point you must take up the reins of your talent yourself, in order to find out what you can do with it, what it’s good for, who you really are as a writer. There are basics everyone needs in the writer’s toolkit–enough words in the vocabulary palette, enough grammar to make the work readable without a struggle, familiarity with the forms of sentence, paragraph, scene, and the basic shapes for nonfiction and fiction. But beyond that, each writer hones those tools by using them until they fit the writer’s own talent and way of writing. Be brave: climb on your talent and ride it outside the ring, away from the coach, and see what happens. (Unlike a horse, a writing talent will not buck you into a cactus or a pile of rocks…only your ego will be bruised and no bones will be broken.)

    Any piece of advice may be perfect for where you are now in your writing life…or may be perfectly terrible for where you are now in your writing life. Some advice is suitable for beginners (read a lot, write a lot, build vocabulary, try out different kinds of writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry), genres, styles to see which work best for you.) Other advice is more suitable for those who have chosen one or several kinds of writing and need to know more about it.

    But no advice–not one single thing–is essential for every writer in every writing project. (OK…even that’s wrong: I think “Don’t bore the reader” is essential in all cases. But I could be wrong about that, too.)


  • Comment by Genko — January 25, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

    2

    Pretty good words for how to construct a life, as well…


  • Comment by Ed Schoenfeld — January 27, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    3

    Thank you Elizabeth. Posts like this are not the only reason I read your blog, but they are one reason I do.


  • Comment by GinnyW — January 29, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    4

    “Finding your own voice” can be a tricky business, especially if it has, for whatever reason, become lost or misplaced. Your advice is well-taken, and a good balance to the previous piece on research.


  • Comment by Jenn — January 29, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    5

    Your english teacher’s advice ought to be followed in all aspects of daily life for all people. It would at least make people pause and think before acting just because they can.

    How is the weather down there? I saw Georgia got hit. Is Texas unseasonly cold also? We have been in such a deep freeze up here for so long that last week when it was -8c I was out walking with my jacket open and it felt (to me) like a spring day. My aunt 3 hrs north of here has had 200cm of snow so far this winter and are expecting 30cm more before I go there for ice fishing next week.


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