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On Writing Advice

Fascinating article in the Globe and Mail about advice writing. (Via Bookninja.)

The market for fiction shrinks every year, the attention paid to novels by the media diminishes monthly, booksellers demand ever-lower prices, everybody in the industry says it’s the worst it’s ever been. And yet more academic or private creative-writing programs are created every year, and the demand for advice on becoming a novelist remains furiously high. Indeed, the selling of advice on writing has become a self-supporting industry: I know young writers who are doing masters of fine arts in creative writing so that they can in turn become creative-writing teachers in similar programs. Any magazine article like this one generates Internet responses as lengthy as any novella. The discussion of creative writing seems more popular than creative writing itself.

I’ve noticed this trend myself, especially given the latest round of hot tips from pros. (As an aside, I always want to point people to Alan Moore’s 5 tips on writing.)

There’s a fetish concerning being a writer. People want to know how things are done. What time they write. What pens they use. What they drink beforehand. There’s a thirst for backstage gossip.

I wonder where it all comes from?

Being a writer is often a dream job for more people than you think, and there’s probably a reality check required for the most part. That said, there’s a huge disparity between dreams of writing, and knowledge of how to be one – where to find an agent, how to get published, what route to take, what gods to sacrifice to, that sort of thing. (Another aside: use Google, because it’s all out there.) And somewhere in-between an information industry has sprung up.

From all the panels I’ve sat on at conventions, and all the questions that I’ve been asked, this lack of knowledge has created an atmosphere where people worry too much. They agonise over every single detail of a cover letter to agents, over how many words to make a novel (answer: as long as the story), a whole load of stuff that stops people from the most important bit of all.

So, I think Neil Gaiman says it best, in his advice to writers:

You write.

You finish what you write.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

7 replies on “On Writing Advice”

Hi Mark,

This article makes me stop and think – have I been worrying too much?

I’ve spent years writing and editing novels and slowly getting closer to submitting to agents. The submission process seems terrifying and simple at the same time. All the extra ‘research’ and backstage gossip is a great way to procrastinate and avoid the reality – that I might get rejected, or accepted.

Good advice from messrs Moore and Gaiman. I think in addition, it’s probably a good idea not to listen to articles that blather on about the desperate state of the publishing industry and the fiction market.

Besides I thought I heard that fiction sales were up this last Christmas, and celebrity biographies etc, were down. Whatever, just write!

Excellent thought-provoking article as always.

I’m currently engaged in a very interesting conversation which touches on this with a non-writer friend (stemming from the NextRead Submission discussion from this morning) that I will be turning into a blog post this evening.

My real-world writers group recently had someone come and do a talk about script-writing. Not something I’m personally that interested in, but a lot of the group’s members were, and to be fair it wasn’t a bad talk. However, upon questioning we found that she hadn’t actually sold a script but “had an agent”.

I find myself, numerous magazine articles published, non-fiction book co-authored, short stories placed, still glancing at the writing self-help books. I can’t help it. I’ve only recent felt comfortable calling myself a writer, always feeling it a little pretentious. By the above standards, I probably should already be writing a self-help book 😉

I think the issue, at least for me, was one of metrics. Our lives, particularly in business, are largely dictated by measuring and gauging ourselves. And when I first decided to take my fiction seriously, I wanted to be able to gauge how well I was doing. Some people mistook this as wanting some magic bullet, which I think is a rather patronising way to look at aspiring writers. I just think a lot of people approach this with a very real view as to how hard it is and question why they should wander around in the dark if other writers have already made the journey.

I’ve now come to realise that it’s not the destination but the journey that is important. It’s impossible to say definitively, because I’m still on that journey, I probably always will be.

It was only when I thought “screw what everyone else does, I’m doing it this way” that things started coming together for me. But there is still an underlying lack of confidence that I think plagues a lot of writers. You want to believe in yourself, but you want to be humble as well. Am I as good a writer as you, Mark? Probably not. Does that mean I ‘deserve’ publication any less? Who knows, I don’t think I think I deserve anything, I just try and serve the story and keep my ego out of it, but there are those who feel it’s about effort rather than skill. Should I revere those authors who come before me, or see them as equals? The community tends to weigh towards the former.

When the rejections start mounting some can’t help questioning whether they are any good, and start looking towards those who have succeeded. I recently blogged how my self-deprecating nature isn’t going to do me favours in wanting to become a professional. If I were a debut novelist, blogging or twittering how crap I thought I was (and by God some days it’s like a verbal flagellation), it wouldn’t do me any favours.

So I don’t think interest is always about “being” a writer, but really about misguided focus and lack of confidence.

I saw that original article in the Guardian a few days ago ( and remember thinking to myself that it was almost entirely useless crap; absolutes in a realm where nothing is absolute.

No trick or bit of advice can replace commitment, hard work, and practice. I think Brandon Sanderson put it well in his Daily Herald interview. The comment about writing is at around 5:45:

I think the most important thing for a writer to remember is that one should sift through the advice and find the stuff that works for them. That Guardian article was full of some great advice, but also some rules that I felt compelled to ignore completely. It would certainly be easy to feel overwhelmed if an aspiring writer felt that they had to adhere to them all. You’d never get anything written!

Similar to your quote, Mark, I think Gaiman’s advice was the purest:

Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

Rachel – that’s an interesting point about procrastinating. I never thought of that. I guess those who don’t fear failure are more likely to succeed…?

Jason – absolutely.

Adrian – thanks for those comments. You’re right about the metrics, for many people. And the journey is incredibly important. Write because you love writing. For most who write with the aim of being a star, they’re likely to end up disappointed. It’s tough, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the process.

Peter – yes, my thoughts exactly. Thanks for the video link – I’d never heard Sanderson speak until now!

Aidan – I think that’s the danger. Things like that only add to the worry about whether people are doing the right thing or not; when they’re probably doing the right thing already.

I only ever too one bit of advice, and it was something that Hemingway said about writing a set amount each day and stopping at that point. Even if it’s the middle of an important scene or conversation. Then you’ll know exactly where to pick up the next day.

But that might not work for everyone so I share the point with reluctance.

Same goes for writers groups. Most are social clutches for people to share whatever and perpetuate the idea that they’re a writer. Go home and write. Stop taking courses, give the next workshop a miss, let the panel worry it’s own head. Go home and write.
It’s interesting that many people who profess to be professional writers are published, yes, but actually make their living selling tips, doing panels, visiting schools and wandering around the how-to circuit that they used to frequent before the became a professional shill.
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but still not far off the mark.

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