I get a lot of emails from other writers asking for advice, and most of the time I have no idea what to tell them. Honestly, I’m making things up as I go along, fumbling around the same as everyone else. I suppose, however, that when we reach certain points we forget about things. For instance, I’ve forgotten how difficult it used to be to start a novel. These days it’s nothing. I’ve written enough first chapters and experimented enough with what kind of outlining and research works for me that starting a novel may still be frightening, but it’s not insurmountable by any means. I don’t paralyze myself at the thought.
As writers, especially new writers, we believe a lot of things people tell us. Many new writers read blogs like a hungry bear, craving whatever direction they can find. Sadly, I’ve fed new writers some pretty juicy lies. Not that I knew I was doing such a thing, but I’d like to dispel a few things here today in order to share some advice, in a way.
Lie #1 – write what you know
I am not a spy. I am not Cinderella after she has been married. I do not have a sister with three eyes. I have never been kidnapped or abused.
I don’t write what I know. All this deceiving phrase has ever boiled down to is to write confidently. Period.
Lie #2 – you must write like someone else to be successful
No, you must not. Writing like someone (or everyone) else is a Bad Idea. Buried in their actions, I’ve seen many writers believe that to catch the eye of an agent, they must write like the other popular voices out there. Imitation may be a good writing exercise, but if you continue to ignore your own path and voice you’ll never truly stand out. Temporarily, you might make it, but in the long run you will get buried underneath a pile of identical, life-crushing boulders.
Lie #3 – always follow the rules
We’ve all heard the rules.
Don’t use adverbs. Ever.
Flashbacks are bad.
Back story dumping is bad.
Don’t use prologues.
Don’t ever start a story with your character waking up.
Don’t repeat the same word in the same sentence.
You should always outline your book first.
and on and on and on…
The thing to remember is that these are not rules. Rules are things like you must put a period at the end of a sentence or use lay instead of lie if you’re talking about an object and not a person. Grammar stuff. Those are rules. Everything else is subject to change. Seriously. You can use adverbs, flashbacks, and a prologue if you want. If you read enough and write enough you’ll learn the right balance that works for you. For some writers, flashbacks never work. For others they are a brilliant literary device. Everyone is different. Don’t limit yourself to a box made of rules. Experiment. Learn. Write.
More of these “rules” are listed below.
Lie #4 – if you’re bored by your own work during the writing process, your reader will be, too
Lie. Lie. Lie. I’m bored by my own work all the time. I work on my novels hours upon hours, days upon days, sometimes years upon years. Yeah, I’m going to get bored. I know things the reader will never know. As writers, we get so close to our work that it’s often impossible to judge how a reader will react to certain aspects of the story. We shouldn’t be worried about that, anyway. When you’re finished, put your book aside for a few months and come back to it later. You’ll probably still be bored by certain things, but that gut-feeling inside of you will speak otherwise. Listen to it.
Also, this is why I have a few beta readers. They can often help me spot problematic areas I would never have seen before. I’d like to write in a complete bubble and keep all the credit to myself, but in all honesty, I’ll at least need one or two people to see my work before I can call it completely finished.
Lie #5 – your first sentence must hook the reader
Not true, and besides, it’s impossible to hook every reader with one sentence.
Lie #6 – your book must fit into a genre
Not true. Genres are best blended, bended, and torn apart, in my opinion.
Lie #7 – you must know your story’s theme before you write
Not true. I never discover my story’s themes until I’ve pretty much finished the book. Honestly, I don’t think it’s any of my business what the themes are. It’s my job to write the story, not preach it.
Lie #8 – there must be tension on every page
Not true. Leave your reader room to breathe, for crying out loud.
Lie #9 – I know everything