Trying to write betterish


Nick Mamatas has some thoughts on bad writing advice that pros give to aspiring writers and I’m pretty much in agreement with everything he says[1]. I was thinking of posting a few additions to the list, until I realized that would be too much like teaching, which isn’t what this blog is about[2].

Instead I want to talk about my own learning process in a very brief way.

Pre-Internet, I was one of those people who subscribed to Writers Digest, took writing classes, and belonged to a writing group. I bought and read how-to books, the whole deal. When I got online, I found a whole slew of professional, published writers. Did it matter that I hadn’t heard of most of them before? Not to me![3]

But when I asked them how to be a good writer, their answers were frustratingly vague. Paraphrased, they came to “Don’t be dull.”

That was not what I wanted to hear. At all. I wanted technique. I wanted rules and tools. “Luckily,” I knew a bunch of actors at the time, and they convinced me to try scriptwriting[4].

When I went online to find scriptwriting advice, I was overjoyed. HERE was the concrete advice I was looking for: Acts end on pages X and Y. Dialog should be no longer than 3 lines. No flashbacks!

It quickly became clear that these rules were there only because so many people were Doing It Wrong. Flashbacks weren’t bad, necessarily, but so many people wrote them poorly that noobs weren’t to be trusted with them.

I spent years in online forums arguing over these techniques, and some of the people I met there remain friends to this day (and some of them still make me shudder when I think of them).

What’s more, some of this advice helped me. Like everyone, my writing and my storytelling[5] were broken in very specific ways. The advice that made me face what was wrong did me a world of good. The other advice was a waste of my time.

At this point, I’m still working damn hard to improve, but I never give any thought to these rules. I show or tell depending on what seems right, and I use flashbacks when flashbacks are called for. I also try to average 1K words a day (not necessarily finished words, either) but not when the book is stuck. In fact, my WIP is stuck right now and I’ve put new word counts aside until I get some character stuff worked out.

So what happened was that I took in all these rules–good, bad, and indifferent–thought about them, wrestled with them, blah blah blah, and eventually, after years of practice, returned to that same place those professional writers I’d never heard of tried to bring me to so many years before:

“Be interesting.”

In other news, that omnibus/ghost knife auction for Pat Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders fundraiser is already up to $260. Thank you so much to everyone who has bid so far.

Finally, I’m composing this post on my wife’s iPad, which has a deeply annoying interface. I’m not all that fond of autocorrect, either; it’s already turned “thought” into “trout” in the paragraphs above. Any goofy text up there? Because this is one musician ready to blame his instrument.

[1] I think there’s some value in turning the writing/submission process into a game, if that helps you produce good work. The important thing to remember is that the win condition is “produce good work” not “submit X stories a month” or “write X words per day”. The game has to stop when playing it becomes actively harmful (just like Angry Birds).

[2] If anyone has an idea what this blog is about, let me know, because I have no damn clue.

[3] And it still doesn’t. I hadn’t heard of them because I was ignorant, not because they weren’t good.

[4] In my life, I’ve done two things before they became The Thing Everyone Else Is Doing. One was move to Seattle. The other was waste my time writing spec scripts.

[5] These are two very different things on one level and identical to each other on another.