Those of us who began writing fiction 20 years ago didn’t get lots of advice on how to do it. Back in the early 1990s, Janet and I…
- Belonged to a fiction critique group
- Attended a couple writers’ conferences every year
- Subscribed to two writing magazines
- Owned about a half-dozen different how-too books on fiction writing — all that our biggest local bookstore had in stock.
We thought about taking a fiction-writing course at a local college, but never did, mostly because I was skeptical that one can learn the craft of fiction in a classroom. I wasn’t alone in my opinion. Conventional wisdom in those olden days held that you taught yourself to write fiction by… writing fiction. You sat down at your computer (or typewriter) and pounded the keys until your words became good enough to sell.
One purveyor of writing advice we dearly wanted but didn’t have was an experienced fiction editor. Two decades ago, most editors worked for publishers — which created a Catch-22-like situation. An unedited manuscript didn’t get edited until after a publisher bought it, even though some judicious pre-submission editing might have helped to sell the novel to a publisher.
I found myself musing about writing advice the other day when a church friend asked me for “some writing tips” he could pass on to his daughter, who is about to graduate with an English degree and wants to be a novelist.
I managed to resist the urge to say, Intervene — before she develops a tragic compulsion. After hemming a hawing a moment, I took the easy way out and suggested that she buy the classic book “Self Editing For Fiction Writers” (by Browne & King) and attend a writers’ conference that offers a comprehensive fiction track.
I defy anyone to come up with a better off-the-cuff recommendation, given the torrent of advice available to novelists today. How do you pick and choose among the…
- Writing retreats and workshops — in every state and country
- Webinars and online seminars — on every conceivable fiction-related topic
- Numerous writing coaches
- Hundreds of blogs on how to write fiction
- Tens of thousands of advice-filled posts on scores of different fiction-writing mailing lists (“loops”)
- Author websites by the gazillions that offer writing-advice pages
- Freelance editors of every stripe and skill set
- Myriad local classes and continuing-Ed programs that teach the basics of fiction-writing
- A torrent of books on different aspects of writing fiction… plus a plethora of magazines and newsletters (both paper and online)
- Online writing curricula
- Fiction-focused MFA programs
- Writing, outlining, and thought mapping software
- And countless writers’ conferences and fiction workshops (often genre focused) put on by the national organizations and local chapters
The purveyors of writing advice (I’m sure I left out several) seem to outweigh the interested novelists-in-waiting who might want to receive it.
And my list is only for writing advice. There are parallel streams of guidance about self-publishing, creating eBooks, and implementing sure-fire book promotion.
With so much “wisdom” floating around, it stands to reason that many (most?) of the tips are unworkable, contradictory, and simply wrong.
Frankly, I’ve never been bothered by dumb writing advice. (Most of us can sort the wheat from the chaff.) What really annoys me off are those absolute commandments issued by advice-givers with great credentials: Do things my way or you will fail.
One tip I came across a few years ago was the edict — promulgated during a presentation by a respected novel guru — to move every detail of “backstory” to the back of a novel (at least beyond page 30). He insisted that opening chapters must contain nothing but compelling action and dialog that draws the reader into the story.
While it makes good sense not to clutter Chapter One with non-essentials, a blanket “no details” prohibition can’t possibly apply to all stories, of all genres, told by all novelists.
Unhappily, several fellow late bloomers in the audience took the advice as gospel and — with very little pondering — decided to rewrite the front ends of their works in progress.
IMO, late-blooming novelists are especially vulnerable to “thrashing” — repeatedly changing course in response to new guidance. We recognize the value of learning from other’s mistakes, because we know that we don’t have time to make all the mistakes ourselves. And so, we consume writing advice voraciously, hoping that the secret to writing a bestseller is lurking in the next how-to book — or will be revealed in the next workshop.
I confess that I pay close attention to gurus, too, even though (as a long-time giver of writing advice in workshops, writing classes, blogs, and books) I know the fundamental limitation of most writing tips. The vast majority are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They tell you the characteristics of compelling fiction but not how to write it. Wouldn’t it be grand, for example, if someone published the recipe for the gripping first pages we’re endlessly advised to create?
Until that happens, the best way to learn to write fiction is to read novels and pound your keyboard. That’s my writing tip for today.