Recently, I’ve been exploring the world of advice that is available to author and I’ve made the discovery that a lot of it makes my teeth itch.
• Write what you know.
• Write every day.
• Keep going until you finish. You can always fix it later.
Initially this advice seemed to make sense. On the surface it looks applicable to every writer, no matter what stage of their career the writer is in. But if you look deeper, some of this advice isn’t going to stand up to scrutiny for many writers.
Write what you know.
If I wrote only what I knew, my stories would be filled with sullen teenagers, boisterous dogs and the cats who try to terrify them. By limiting myself to writing what I know well, I’d be stuck writing about the minutiae of the everyday. Shopping list, work deadlines, broken hot water services and a never ending stream of permission notes tossed across the breakfast table.
Instead of writing what you know, how about writing what you want to know. Instead of focusing on writing about the life you live, what if we all wrote about the life we wanted to live? After all, we writers tend to have many different characters living out their lives through our fingers. We might as well have fun with the experience.
For me, one of the joys of writing is delving into someone else’s experiences. Learning new skills. Discovering new outlooks on life. This focus on looking through another set of eyes helps me create characters who I’d love to have dinner with, but more importantly, it makes me a better writer. Some days I have to stretch myself to write about topics that are beyond my personal, direct understanding, but that’s the challenge of being a writer.
Write every day. Get up early. Stay up late. Sacrifice something else for your writing.
This collection of advice derailed my fiction writing for many years. I’m not fit for human company if I get up any earlier. Staying up late isn’t an option because I fall asleep at my keyboard if I try. The only thing left to sacrifice was my time with the children, and as they were little, I wasn’t willing to. When you add the day job of technical and instructional writing and editing, there were days I would have thrown the monitor out the window if I had to spend another second staring at it.
For me, what worked was a weekly target of 7,000 words. Some weeks this was done in a frenetic burst of focus, while other weeks it was in 1,000 words a day. But by allowing myself the freedom to work writing into the weekly schedule (rather than the daily schedule), I found I was more productive. That’s not to say I don’t work on the stories each day, I do. But that work isn’t always writing. Some days it will be day dreaming about the story. Other days it is more involved thinking, trying to work out why the story isn’t working the way I want it to be.
Keep going until you finish. You can fix it later.
Sometimes fixing it later is more trouble than the story is worth. Some stories you don’t have the passion for anymore. Or the direction.
There are legitimate times, stories and reasons to stop working on a piece. As the creator of the universe in which your story is set, only you can say if the story needs to be finished to plan. But if you’re really pushing yourself to finish the story, you should be examining your motivation with writing the story.
My guess is, most authors will have unfinished manuscripts buried in a bottom draw, on a floppy disc or an old hard drive. I’m not going to give you a trite or glib answer along the lines of the story that is meant to be will be easy to write. It won’t be, but if you’re beating yourself senseless over a story, it’s time to step back and examine your expectations of the story.
• Are you trying to make a short story a novel?
• Are you trying to make a young adult story fit the adult market?
• Are your characters acting true to form?
• Are you manipulating the characters so the plot will work?
• Do you have a plot or a series of events?
As an editor, I can always tell when a writer is lost. When they’ve finished the work not because they wanted to; not because they needed to, but simply because they followed the always finish rule. If you feel lost, stop. Play with the characters. Work out if the story means enough to you to finish it. After all, unless you’re under contract, no one is waiting for this story. The only reason to finish writing the story is because you feel a burning passion for the story or the characters. Because you want to see these characters, this setting, this story free in the world.
If you haven’t got that burning passion for this story, consider putting the story aside until you find the passion to finish it.
The most freeing writing lesson I’ve learnt, is nothing is written in stone. Getting advice is cheap and easy but the doing can be impossibly hard. Creating a routine and a workflow that works for you as a person, as a parent, as an employee, as a boss and as a creative being is all that matters.
Cherry pick the bits of advice that work for you, discard the rest. It’s the only way you’ll create a writing career that fits with your life.