MIND MELD: ‘The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received…’
In honor of the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp, we asked this week’s panelist for writing advice…
Here’s what they said…
I wasn’t trying to be a writer as a young adult so no one was giving me advice about how to do it back then. What I was doing was a ton of reading, which turned out to be the best thing I could have been doing anyway. What was particularly good about my reading was that I hadn’t learned to make a distinction between one kind of book and another; I hadn’t ever told myself I liked one kind of book, but not another. So I read widely — books for children and for adults, poetry by Emily Dickinson and Garcia Lorca, The Lord of the Rings and Don Quixote and The Hunting of the Snark. I read hundreds of YA’s whose titles I’ve forgotten, but whose stories I still remember about high school proms and football teams and how to be popular. I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries, short story collections like Junior Miss and The Night the Bed Fell and collections of humor and horror. I read non-fiction like Men Against the Sea and Old Bones, the Wonder Horse, and historical biographies of all sorts. When I came to writing, many years later, I realized that I had unconsciously picked up techniques from all those sorts of books. And that I had no limiting vision of what I could or could do in any particular piece, although many tried to convince me otherwise. I had a good solid sense of there being no rules at all.
The best advice no one actually gave me was to read a lot of any and everything.
The thing I didn’t understand about the writing life was how public it can be. It looked very private when I imagined it — there you are, alone in your room, pulling images as fast as you can from that clown-car between your ears we call your brain. You need please no one, but yourself. I didn’t think at all about reviews and reader reactions and sales figures. I didn’t picture interviews and readings. The alone-in-your room part is still the part I like best.
He told me to read. To read everything — every type of fiction and non-fiction — and never stop. I’d wanted to write for as long as I can remember and put out my first magazine, Outlaw’s Own, entirely written by me, at the age of nine, typing on a borrowed upright typewriter using carbon paper, so I had as many copies as would come through on the carbons. My mother sent me to Pitman’s College so I could learn shorthand and typing (shorthand was for journalists in the age before portable recorders!) and get a job in Fleet Street.
In other words, I had always wanted to write. I knew writers from an early age and knew that few of them made more money, say, than the local hard-working GP, so I was perfectly realistic in my expectations. I don’t know anything else I would have been except a singer/songwriter, which is what I do when not writing. Maybe an actor. I was thought to have a talent for that. But I’m sure I would have continued to write prose, no matter what.
Do college students count as young adults? If that’s the case, then the most valuable piece of writing advice I’ve received came from Dr. Mike Raymond, who taught the only creative writing class I’ve ever taken (at Stetson University). Throughout the class he placed emphasis on the need to develop one’s own unique sense of literary taste, along with an appropriate degree of self-confidence in that sense of taste. (He had some mischievous and unorthodox ways of getting this message across. Sometimes he’d write nonsensical grades on our papers, like “Q” or “M” or “R”. Once he gave every student in the class an A on a particular assignment, and when the class looked at him in puzzlement after he handed the papers back-he was a notoriously tough grader, and this was not in character-he said, “I just wanted to see what your faces looked like when you all thought you got A’s from me! Turn your papers over. Your real grades are on the back.”)
His point with these games, I believe, was that criticism, even if it comes from credentialed authority figures, is often useless to the writer who does not also possess a somewhat accurate sense of the quality of his or her own work. Opinions of art are ultimately subjective; moreover, criticism is a craft, and like any craft, not everyone is skilled at it. A writer with too little self-confidence will take all criticism at equal value, and will end up pleasing no one by attempting to please everyone. On the other hand, a writer with too much self-regard will take little if any advice at all, no matter how tactful or perceptive it is, and as a result will be unlikely to improve his or her skills beyond mediocrity. The ability to perform an accurate self-assessment of one’s work in the light of responses to it is crucial if a writer is to distinguish between criticism that is useful and will help to improve one’s craft, and criticism that is wrong-headed for one reason or another, and best disregarded.
Bonus question 1: If I’d known then what I know now about the writing life, would I have continued to pursue it? Well, it ended up taking me fourteen years to write and publish my first novel, one that, when I began it, I naively thought would be on shelves in four years at the latest. But after all that work, the novel seems to have made people happy, and it’s satisfying to be able to point at something that’s evidence that you’ve accomplished something in life. So my answer to this is pretty much “yes,” though I’m crazy that way, and it’s perhaps also true that for a new writer who’s interested in making a career of it, it’s best not to have much of an idea of what you’re getting into. Naiveté is not necessarily a bad thing.
Bonus question 2: How much of a disconnect was there between my vision of the writing life and the reality of it? At first I don’t think I realized how much of good writing involves lots and lots of rewriting, and how much of the business of books should be considered part of the craft. When I completed the second draft of The Dream of Perpetual Motion (my first draft was handwritten) I felt done with the whole thing-all I had to do was get it published, which would be the easy part! Then I looked at that draft again and realized that I was only half done, if that. And after you’ve finally gotten your writing into good enough shape to try to sell it, you have to find an agent, and find an editor, and turn the manuscript into a book, and go through all the constant revision and improvement that happens during that process. I found it to be worth it in the end, but for someone doing it for the first time it can seem like it’s going to take forever, and I now have a better idea of the time and effort that the writing life requires if you’re going to be serious about it.
Who’s going to give any advice to teenager, and what self-respecting teen who wants to write is going to take it? I certainly didn’t get any. The thing is, just do it. Write away, finish things. If you’ve got it, you’ll develop with or without advice. You’ll fall into the same traps we all do and if you have it, you’ll find your own way out of them. If you don’t then it’s good to stop early before you’ve wasted too much time and tears. Coming from a modest culture, I never showed any of the Star Trek pastiche stuff I wrote when I was 12 (I think it’d be called fanfic now, which is a much finer appellation but can also be a trap) to anyone because they would have laughed, and I certainly never told anyone this was what I wanted to do. In life. All the time, you know? I just kept writing stuff. Of course, I never got any advice from my Mum, because she didn’t believe it was the kind of thing people she knew could do –scripted material, whether books, journalism, television, came from lofty place where the Very Good were. She didn’t see that there was a way from her living room to that Lofty Place, and it wasn’t very far away, and it was a portable typewriter and the mail system. Of course, it was then as now, Just People Making Stuff Up. So, not advice, but there were lessons.
The finest advice I ever received early on in my career, which started on my 20s, was from Shawna McCarthy, then editor at Asimov’s, later my editor at Bantam, then my agent for a time –was (and I paraphrase): ‘if in doubt, cut it out.’ That I still stand by –you know instinctively what the good and the less good is. Follow your instincts. They’ve brought you here in the first place.
The disconnect? It’s a lot less well paid than you think. A lot.
I believe potential writers should be exposed to two kinds of teaching: the kind that makes you follow all the rules, and the kind that encourages you to break them. I’m grateful to those who drilled me in spelling, grammar and literary analysis, but I’m going to single out the teacher who told our class to write anything.
We were the students of Upper Six Science, our heads full of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics. The Use of English class was a necessary evil to most of us, intended to resurrect our skills so that we would not embarrass ourselves in the essay-based, compulsory General Paper. It was our first English assignment in more than a year. We grilled our new teacher, demanding to know what topic, how many words, what was the point. His response was vague, his manner relaxed. He just wanted to see what level of writing we could produce.
Write anything, any length, whatever you like.
That simple instruction unlocked a barrier I hadn’t realised was there. Instead of having to guess at what the teacher wanted me to write, I could create what I wanted the teacher to read. I had indeed been building a world on the side, drawing Tolkienesque maps at the back of maths class and writing up spare exercise-books with (formulaic) prose and (bad) epic poetry about apprentice warriors. But I showed him none of that. Instead, I wrote pages (more, and more easily, than if I had been held to a word limit) about a student’s perspective on English assignments:
The teacher is new. I have not yet evaluated his likes and dislikes. Would a dry, educational, researched piece do, or would he relish something lighter? Dare I try humour? What can make this teacher laugh?
I got a good mark for it, but I was more impressed by the paragraphs of commentary that he wrote, paragraphs full of interest and enthusiasm and feedback. It wasn’t a lecture from teacher to student, but a conversation between author and reader. He showed me how to enjoy breaking the rules and what it feels like to entertain a reader, but it was at the end of his comments that he gave me the best advice of all:
Keep on writing and perhaps you will become an unusually articulate scientist if I cannot persuade you to join the ranks of the artists!
Dr Chung-Wee, you win. Here I am.
I can’t say much about the writer’s life. I’m still learning it as I go along, a new experience from day to day. What did I imagine it would be like? Nothing spectacular. I come from a culture that expects artists to starve, and I know that for every socially-stable and financially-secure writer there’s an eccentric for whom fame and fortune came either too early or too late. I’m willing to be surprised – pleasantly, I hope!
The best writing advice I was given when I was a young adult was this: “every story follows the protagonist’s wishline.” At the time, I thought the professor who told us this was crazy. I had no idea what he was talking about – I thought stories were about people, doing things. Worse, his example was that the faery character in my story should want to go to the prom! I didn’t think he could possibly be right. Only later did I realize that characters do need to want things and the force of a character’s desire really does propel the story forward. It really does create the tension. And it creates the path to the ending. If only I’d known then what good advice it was, I would have saved myself a lot of time and misery.
I think the biggest difference between my perception of the writing life and reality is that I imagined that being a writer would be more private. I pictured sitting in an office somewhere and typing a lot. But actually, there is a lot of travel involved and a lot of public speaking. Writing is the most important part of the job, of course, and I still get to sit in my office and type — but I also do a lot of typing in hotel rooms, in airports, and in coffee shops. I didn’t expect that — and as a nervous public speaker, it took me a long time to acclimate.
I learned to write from reading, primarily, and so the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me about writing, or at least the most memorable, came from the introduction to a short story collection – Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. In it, Vonnegut said something like, “if you open a window and try to make love to the world your fiction will die of pneumonia,” meaning, of course, that nothing you write will please everyone so don’t even try. Rather, Vonnegut went on to say, write for one person, and in all likelihood many more people than your intended audience of one will appreciate what you’ve written. Vonnegut wrote everything for his sister, and even after she died she was still the audience he was writing for.
Of course, like many a piece of good advice, it’s something I’ve implemented only occasionally, and even then only partially, depending on the project. Which is to say I cheat-with my first novel, for example, the intended audience I was writing for was myself, or rather, myself when I was a weird little teenager. In trying to write something that I would have loved as a teen-and, ideally, as an adult as well-I also thought about what my friends in high school would have enjoyed, as so much of what I read came on their recommendations and vice versa, and quite a few of them and I played a lot of roleplaying games, which is very much collaborative storytelling. So I was writing the novel with a specific audience in mind, but it wasn’t strictly one individual, and it was at least a partially internal audience to boot.
The real thrust of Vonnegut’s advice is what has stuck with me, the point being that no single project or author can do everything-the sooner we comes to terms with this the better, as it helps to focus the creative energies on what we really want to do, rather than what we feel we ought to do. In my experience, good writing comes from a place of desire rather than obligation. And like all pieces of good advice, this should be implemented however and whenever the individual sees fit-perhaps the best piece of writing advice that no single person has confided in me but many an author has opinioned is that no criticism or advice is absolute, and to take even the most revered master’s advice with as many or as few grains of salt as one sees fit. We should be receptive but we should also be critical, both of our own writing and the advice we are given about it, and in the end whatever works best for the individual works best for the individual.
In terms of whether or not I would have pursued a writing life if I knew as a teenager what I know now about it, the answer is easy: of course. That said, my case has been very different from what I expected, and in all the best ways. I started writing as a youth with the expectation that I would never make any money off my fiction, and that I had better find something that I both enjoyed doing and could definitely make a living off of in order to support the writing. At first that was managing a video store and later on it was working in a law firm doing clerical work, and I acquired a bachelor’s degree to the end of trying to get a teaching position-summer’s off seemed a fine way to ensure I could get some writing done, and I liked the idea of having the sort of positive effect on students that my teachers had on me. The rare good ones, anyway. That I begin to sell short fiction and then landed a book deal for a novel all came as wildly unexpected (but very welcome) surprises, despite the fact that I had been writing and submitting fiction for a little over a decade before that first novel sold-as I said, I full well expected to wait quite a bit longer before I sold anything of length, and still think that was a healthy attitude to foster as it helped stave off some (although certainly not all) of the doubt and anxiety that comes with being a writer.
As for the disconnect between how I envision the writing life and the reality of it, that’s slowly diminishing the longer I work-the harder I work and the more realistic I allow myself to be the narrower the gap grows. I suppose to some extent I always imagined writing and the writing life to be this incredibly isolated experience, and in many ways it certainly is, but there is also an incredible amount of outside support that makes the whole experience infinitely more bearable. I’m speaking partially of family and friends who help us take breaks from ourselves and our work, of course, but I’m also talking about the other writers, filmmakers, musicians, and everyone else who we don’t personally know but whose work in turn nourishes and inspires our own writing life. Nobody writes in a vacuum, as much as we may sometimes imagine we do.
When I was in high school, I had a lively and heady Dead Poets-style teacher named Glen Brown-he had a mustache and practiced Tae Kwon Do-who taught me poetry, who taught me to blur the line between my definitions of poetry and prose, and who challenged me every day. Here’s roughly what he taught me: “You’re a talented writer, Will, as long as you actually write. Being read is a great joy, but you have to do the work if you want to have material for the class to read and talk about.” But I was a foolish kid, bent on being a breakout.
Here’s what I heard: “You’re a talented writer, Will, and as long as you write, people will read you and talk about you.” I sort of missed the point.
When I was in college, I had a cunning medievalist and critical-literature expert for a professor, called Lisa Haines Wright. She was a silver-haired gesticulator, and I imagine she still is. Here’s how she once described me: “brilliant and irresponsible.”
Here’s what I heard: “You’re either a gifted writer, who should only write when you feel brilliant, and to whom deadlines do not apply, or you’re a no-good hack who doesn’t have what it takes to make it as a writer.” My melodramatic college brain couldn’t reconcile the truth of it, and this is where the bonus points come in.
Both of those teachers were giving me key advice that I only made simple sense of later-a few failures as a writer and it was like I eventually put on prescription glasses and could finally read what they were writing to me. The lesson was simple, it just wasn’t easy, and I later committed it to memory as a honed phrase, too obvious to ignore: Writers write. I keep that taped up next to my desk. Writers write.
Somehow I’d gotten it into my head that if it wasn’t good-no, if it wasn’t great-it wasn’t worth writing. This is patently ridiculous. This completely ignores the power and purpose of rewriting.
For me, at least, the great advice I got as a youth didn’t really become clear until I had learned the lessons the hard way. Then the advice I got-about voice, about truth in writing, about clarity and leaving room for the reader’s imagination-came trickling back to me over years, making real sense only when I could apply it as salves to the cuts and burns I was accumulating in the actual field of writing for a living. I’m not a full-time novelist (yet?), so the writing life isn’t what I envisioned (yet?). But it has a lot in common with what I expected: a job of research and writing, cycling and overlapping. It’s about showing up to work every day and sitting in the chair and writing the writing. Everything else comes second because nothing else can happen unless the writer writes.
Part of what’s so energizing and inspiring about Shared Worlds is watching actual, practical writing advice seep into the students, watching it inform in real time. These kids, they’re smarter than I was. They’re getting the lessons already and, I hope, holding on to them.
The deadlines of the camp also teach the students some of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned as a professional, about writing through blocks and trusting in rewrites. These kids don’t have time to waffle and worry. They want to be read so they have to produce. They don’t have time to wait for inspiration, they have to learn to write until the inspiration comes, and then write some more. Writers write.
My grandfather, Louis C. Jones, author of Things that Go Bump in the Night and Spooks of the Valley, gave me this advice when I was probably ten years old and he was in his 70s. At the time I thought he was giving me a non-answer – I wanted a keys to the kingdom, the secret password, a step-by-step formula – but over the years I’ve come to realize that this simple advice is the best advice he could’ve given me.
In college, the advice became read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Suddenly, I was freed from feeling that I should only read the classics. A steady diet of masterpieces, my writing instructor warned, could have a paralyzing effect on a young writer.
A few years later, another writing teacher told me to read the type of stories I wanted to write. This seems pretty obvious. But I’d been reading the type of stories I thought I should write instead of the type I wanted to write.
In graduate school, my supervisor reminded me to read like a writer. I mean, if you want to be a chair maker, you don’t just sit in a chair, right? You try to figure out how the chair was made. And if you want to be a writer, you gotta read -read everything you can get your hands on, read the type of stories you want to write, read like a writer. Read. Read a lot.
Best writing advice: KEEP WRITING. There isn’t any one person that I remember specifically, but a few teachers over the years who encouraged me and I think the best ‘advice’ for young writers is encouragement. Nobody has the right to tell someone to stop doing something creative that they love doing. Everything else about writing can be learned, but if the encouragement isn’t there, that can kill potential and that is unacceptable. Rebel against someone trying to kill your potential.
I would pursue writing no matter what — and I have. Nothing has changed. I’ve always done it even when I didn’t have overt encouragement, and if that’s a part of who you are, then no matter how hard it is to do it professionally, you drive on. There isn’t a lot of disconnect for me. I had a family member who worked for HarperCollins when I was in the process of being good enough to be published, so I saw what it was like behind the scenes, a bit. I went to conventions and heard editors and agents speak. I think I maintain a pretty realistic view of it — that to have your foot in the door is fortunate and I’m extremely grateful — and at the same time knowing that you’re only in the room as long as you do the work. Nothing in life is a free ride so neither should writing be. I love writing, it’s difficult and it will test you, but knowing who you are as a person as well as a writer off-sets the insecurity of the business. If you know that you’re compelled to do something regardless of the outside world then that’s a stable foundation on which to build a career — it will tide you through the ups and downs that will inevitably come in ‘the life.’
Filed under: Mind Meld
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