Last week I wrote about the worst writing advice I ever got, so today I’m going to write about the best writing advice I ever got.
There’s a vast sea of writing blogs out there filled with advice. Most of it is decent. Some of it bad advice, or at the very least, it’s bad advice for you in particular. Similarly, some of that advice is simply inapplicable, e.g. dialog tags rarely matter in how-to books. But every now and then there’s a real gem, or at least, one that really speaks to me.
And the best writing advice I ever got was in quite the opposite direction from last week’s worst advice:
Finish the damn thing.
It’s not “show don’t tell”, “avoid adverbs”, or even “eschew obscure verbiage”. It has nothing to do with the finer points of craft. It’s all about keeping your butt in the chair until you finish what you started.
Maybe that means keeping at it until you finish the draft. Maybe it’s all about doing the necessary edits to turn that draft into a readable manuscript. Maybe it’s about shepherding that manuscript through either the indie or traditional publishing tracks. It fits them all. If you’re working on something, keep at it until you’ve finished it.
Do not merely sit around for years, blathering on and on about that book you’re writing. Don’t let the printout gather dust on your desk. Don’t let it sit for months while you quibble over where to send it. It may have started easily enough with “Chapter 1”, but neither it nor you are done until it’s out the damn door.
Now, I will say that will all good advice, there are a few exceptions. If the book just isn’t working, then maybe it’s irreparably flawed. In that case, set it aside, come back to the idea (not necessarily the manuscript) in a few years and see if it’s worth another look.
My first NaNoWriMo was like that. It reached 75,000 words and was just getting into the middle third of the story, so it was likely to end up at close to 200,000. (That’s 670 pages in paperback terms.) And besides being too long, it was not particularly commercial in that it was a deeply philosophical science fiction tale exploring the nature of sentience, a post-scarcity world of aimless dilettantes, and lots and lots of lesbian robot sex. As weird as that sounds, I might go back to it someday and see what there is to salvage. Who knows, I might just turn out to be the great 21st Century thesis on lesbian robots.
However, if story after story keep stalling out, it’s probably not the story itself, so just grab the one you’re working on and finish it. Maybe it will be trash, but with a finished story, you can at least take a look at the whole and see why it isn’t working and whether or not you can fix it.
My second attempt at a novel did not have those problems, and it is now out in reader’s hands. The third, fourth, and (so far) fifth novels worked out pretty well too. They’re not out yet, but I am working on finishing them. The third is with beta readers, the fourth is in a cooling period awaiting my edits, and the fifth is is taking form in its first draft. After years of piddling around with ideas and partial drafts, it feels good to pound them into the ground and say they are done. Or at least, it feels good so far.
I’ll throw in a couple of quick mentions of the second and third best writing advice I ever got. The second one being to write, write again, and keep writing. Writers write, the saying goes. They don’t merely talk about how they’re going to write.
The third best writing advice I ever got came from a tiny little book called Writing to the Point, by Algis Budrys. The book is now out of print, and used copies are rare and list for about $1000 on EBay. He died a few years ago, so I don’t know what, if anything, his estate is doing about republishing it in paper or ebook form. But he gave an excellent and simple formula for writing fiction that established a rhythm for a story, where the protagonist tries, fails, and keeps trying. I’ll dig it up sometime and do my best to sum it up, but it was fabulous.
So there it is. Anyone else have some good writing advice?
The best I had is fairly similar to yours, actually, and in direct response to the bad “advice” I shared last week. I now have the following written in large, capital letters above my desk. And while it only applies to the first draft, getting that finished is (for me, at least) the hardest part.
The best advice: Have the courage to write badly.
Yes, that is excellent advice. To rephrase it in the words of Mur Laffert, “It’s okay to suck.”