I’ve picked back up Steven King’s On Writing after a long hiatus and slipped into several trappings I incur when taking advice. I placed a filter between myself and the words on the page, the same I use whenever I read any book to the detriment of my enjoyment. I say to myself, “I did this type of character better.” “I don’t make these mistakes.” “I could write a better story than this one.”
However, these boastful diversions are just my ego perking up. Someone else’s page becomes a way to bolster confidence in my writing abilities. The bad writers are one end of the curb I’ve moved past. If only I read the good works as the far curb I’ve yet to reach. It’s more comfortable to point out one instance of a good work being not so good – in a way I certainly would never fail – and then rest upon the laureled trick that I am, therefore, the better writer.
I’ve heard it’s tough for comedians to enjoy comedy because there’s a judgmental and dissecting corner of the mind active whenever they’re in the audience. If true, I have a terrible case of the writer’s version.
There’s always a point to critically viewing art but it’s not there to make me feel good about myself.
Advice about writing is doubly difficult because I can be more brutish and say, “No, you’re wrong.” Where do you go from there?
To take myself out of the safety bubble, I place my bookmarker, close the book, and remember these pieces of acquired wisdom:
- No one cares about you
Unless they’re your friend, no one you’re taking advice from knows who you are. They don’t know your name, they don’t know your age, they don’t know how you write, they don’t love or hate you. All this person is doing is giving advice and you’re listening to it. Whatever intentions you think they have about you is a creation of your ego
There is no curation of the advice based on what you want and don’t want to hear. Sometimes advice is unpleasant but if you’ve a major flaw then pouting till the other person stops talking about it won’t allow you to absorb the advice.
2. You’re not the center of the world
Drop the ego. If the advice fails to explain how to write a dystopian vampire steampunk heist thriller (like the one you’re writing) then that doesn’t mean it’s bad advice. There are infinite stories out there of all types and if you’re looking for the advice that tells you how to write your specific story then set up a monitor and keyboard in your coffin.
Writing advice, like most advice about such a broad topic, will be broad. It won’t come in the same format as the instruction manual used to build furniture you bought online. You read the advice and do the leg work from there.
3. If you get mad it’s because you don’t have confidence that you’re good enough
If someone gives advice by describing a writing style or the pitfalls of individual genres or the use of adverbs, and you get mad, it’s because you don’t have the confidence that you can write in that style or think around those pitfalls or avoid the temptation of just one adverb hit.
4. You’re not the pope
We all make mistakes. You have an eraser or delete key or shredder for your mistakes. Don’t assume it doesn’t apply to you because you’d never mix up their, there, and they’re. “Besides, spellcheck will catch all that for me.”
5. Everything applies to you
All advice is universal to everyone eventually. Don’t skip over advice on writing a good mystery novel just because you don’t write mysteries. Time ticks forward and you never know where you’ll find yourself on the page.
Perhaps one day years later when you’re still only writing slice of life relationship stories, you start to write a chapter about the mystery of grandma’s empty cookie jar. Like a long dormant cicada, that one article you found about how to write mystery novels emerges from the gooey depths of your brain and screeches at you.
6. Pride goeth before the fall
You can be good at anything. You might know you’re the best basketball player at your gym. But what happens to your skills when you step up to the minor league? Suddenly your glorious jump shots get stuffed and your marathon breath runs short.
If you find yourself content with your prose or dialog or the detail of your outlining, then they’re going to stay that way. And when all your readers get tired of how you write your dialog or how all your protagonists blend together, you have to fight the rut you carved for yourself.
Even if the advice’s subject is something you’ve heard a thousand times, listen. You can always learn one new tiny thing. Then another and then another.
7. What’s done is done
If you blush because some advice reminds you of a mistake you made on your first few novels, just remember you’re never going to rewrite those stories. They’re buried, their mistakes and the lessons you’ve learned from them resting as the foundation for what you’re writing right now.
Like the time you slipped a foot off a skateboard and rolled downhill in an ever-lengthening splits, the memories of your writing failures will be a fun story to laugh at when you’re older.
8. What can be changed can be changed
If the piece of advice is applicable to a story you’re writing at the moment, then you’ve the opportunity to fix your work. Don’t wait another word, go back and fix your apostrophes or continue on without every piece of dialog ending with “…” she said.
9. Let them make their point
Like a student in a classroom, don’t interrupt your teacher every ninety seconds and ask them to explain what they just said. Give them time to get their spiel out and then try to answer for yourself what they meant.
Likewise, don’t read half the advice given and jump in with questions or rebuttals. This closes off your mind from the rest of what they have to say and places undue expectations on what advice they should give.
10. If it didn’t help you, there’s more out there (in different forms)
You took it to heart and nothing changed. If only there were more advice articles out there than you could ever hope to read in a single lifetime.
Maybe what they said didn’t click, maybe it wasn’t applicable to what you are trying to accomplish, maybe it was terrible writing advice. Just peruse better advice from other writers. It might not help to read ten articles in a row from T.V. Tropes talking about story elements at a superficial level, but a two-hour long video about how one book enraptures the reader in a unique sci-fi world might contain what you wanted to learn.
11. You’re trying to learn
Always approach advice with the mindset that you’re trying to improve your writing. Don’t walk in expecting validation for already avoiding tropes like the advice suggests. Don’t walk out rejecting everything they said because, “They’re a hack!”
You need to constantly remind yourself that you sought out advice from someone else. You believed someone else can teach you something you didn’t already know and have mastered.
When have you ever heard of someone who didn’t want any advice and was sure they didn’t need any advice? It was probably from someone insufferable, someone who likely needs more help than you.
Don’t worry over seeking out answers (especially if you made it this far into this article). You have a natural curiosity and desire to hear someone else out. In time these things along with your skills and dedication will let you figure out these answers, and many more, for yourself.
Then, later on, when someone asks you for advice, or you feel the desire to submit your advice to the ether, you can find out for yourself that the ability to explain and teach is the true marker of having learned your lessons. It also shows you’re still capable of screwing the whole thing up.