Why you should almost never get your writing advice from a writer

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve gotten some e-mails from reader/writers asking various questions about this project. And, as I mentioned yesterday, I’m having hard time answering those specific questions. So I’m just going to babble for a bit about writing.

Let me start by emphatically stating the one thing that you have to grasp as a writer as stated by William Goldman: Nobody knows anything.

If you feel like you’re on the right track and you don’t think my angle, process, or advice is right for you, then ignore it. In fact, go further than ignore it, rip it to shreds and write a great masterpiece while flying in the face of all of it just to prove me wrong. Writing is a wildly personal thing, from the incentives that make us do it, to what we’re aiming for, to what we want out of it, to how we want to do it. It all varies from person to person. Heck, it varies from story to story. There’s basically no way that I can tell you how you need to write or what you need to write. That’s on you and it is always going to be on you.

I can try, though, to talk a bit about what I do, try to calm you down some, and try to offer some general advice that has proven helpful in my experience. Most likely I’ll fly way off topic and none of this will be useful, but here goes.

We’ll start with this, a combo move that will hopefully dispel what I see as one of the bigger myths that blocks up new writers while putting across the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. The truth is this: writing sucks. I mean, it’s awesome at times, but at other times it’s freakhog horrible and excruciating. Two things I’ve tried to get across with this project are that a lot of plain old boring work goes into my writing and that it is by no means always enjoyable. As a new writer I was under the impression that it was all about the rush I got while writing, the juice, that if that wasn’t there then I was being untrue to the art, and that if I didn’t have that sort of mind-meld flash of insight where I could smell what the characters were smelling then something was wrong, that I had to be brilliant and capture everything with that same energy whenever I was putting words onto the page. And I think this notion, that there should always be angels singing hosannas in your ear while you write, that the juice is what it’s all about, is one of the bigger stumbling blocks for writers everywhere. It’s not true. It is, to be certain, one of the largest draws at the outset of this craft, it’s a wonderful feeling, but it fades. It won’t sustain you through an entire story. You will not get quite the same rush of insight and discovery and puzzle solving that you had at the start of a story all the way through that story. And that’s okay. You are not doing something wrong if, in order to finish a story, you sit there bored and not very engaged and just type the rest of the stupid thing out. Which brings me to the best piece of advice I ever received.

A few years ago I was floundering with a book and was having beers with someone who had been reading a first draft and I was going on about how something didn’t feel right and how I was forcing certain things across and things weren’t clicking anymore and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and my friend looked at me, sort of confused, and she said: “Joe, just finish the book.”

Astounding advice. Revolutionary really. For a lot of you out there this might sound blasphemous. And for some of you who I’ve e-mailed with this might sound hypocritical (I constantly advise relaxing and not forcing things and letting the story guide you).

For the first group, I’d imagine it sounds blasphemous to use phrases like “not feeling right” and “not getting things across” and end with the lesson that it’s okay to have those feelings and write anyway. Again, as a new writer if I had felt these things about a story I would have stepped back and tried to fix myself before moving forward with the writing. I would have wanted to know what was wrong before I moved ahead. Everything had to be perfect. I had to feel the juice. Because the juice equaled insight and without it I wasn’t doing good work. Then I got that piece of advice from my friend and things started changing. I relaxed a bit. And that made a huge difference. And here’s what you’re probably thinking, “So you decided to just plow ahead without being inside the story and let yourself write badly?” The answer is sort of yes and sort of no. That statement is fundamentally backwards. The truth is you can write awfully damned well without the juice and with the juice you weren’t writing nearly as well as you thought you were. The juice is addictive but that feeling doesn’t make or break the writing. Again, I think it’s very important at the outset of a story, but really it’s just the doorknob, and after you’ve used the doorknob you have to open the door, then you have to walk inside. And if you’re still holding onto the doorknob for dear life you’re not going to make it very far. Just finish the book. Just finish the story. Writing sucks. Sit yourself down, continue typing. Do the same thing tomorrow. And finish something.

In other words, everything you write is your best, just let it happen.

This isn’t a science, it’s an art and a skill. There aren’t formulas, there’s only the process. And there is no way to learn a skill except through experience. You can prepare and study and read up on it but until you have written a story, you aren’t actually writing. Finish, then rewrite, because here’s what happens. You, slowly…very very slowly, begin to gain faith in yourself, and faith in the craft. Your first-draft-self begins to learn that it can trust your rewrite-self to catch some of the more blundering sentences you spit out. And your rewrite-self learns that it can trust your first-draft-self to do pretty good work, so rewrite-self can delve deeper with its edits and cuts. And slowly you become okay with letting a character stray from your intended path, and slowly you stop getting so blocked up trying to craft each sentence perfectly the first time through, and slowly you start to trust in yourself that by the time you finish your piece, you will be proud of it. And that is a very good thing. Because being relaxed while writing is the final goal. When you’re relaxed you let your characters be who they’re going to be, and so they’ll ring true. And you’ll let your story go where it needs to go, and so you won’t tack anything on. And you won’t worry about being artsy, you’ll just write clearly with your voice and so your readers will drink you words like cool water.

I’m not there yet so that last part was mostly conjecture, but I do know that the juice is overrated and my work turns out better when I’m not constantly trying to wrestle it for control. Also, there’s this. The more you write the less you’ll worry because you’ll slowly build up a library of work you can look back on and be proud of. The clunky stories will seem less clunky when standing next to a row of good stories. Hell, for that matter, the clunkers will be less clunky the better your fundamental skills become. But a library of work is what it’s really all about. Not just one story. The more you write, the less pressure there is on any one project.

And, now, we have come full circle to the question I get asked most often: “Where do you get your ideas?”

And here’s my answer: “I haven’t got the slightest freakhog clue.”

I really don’t. Or rather…aren’t ideas everywhere?

Ideas are all over the place. Take any classic story and tweak it and you’ll get a dozen new ideas. Romeo and Juliet. What would have happened if:

They had met, he had fallen in love, but she hadn’t.
Other way around.
Things had gone as they had but she had gotten pregnant the first time they slept together.
They had been gutsy enough to go public with their love.
Someone in one of the feuding families had learned about them and (subset): been jealous that they had found happiness and wanted to break the hearts of Romeo and Juliet; seen opportunity because they wanted nothing more than to bring the families into all out war; seen opportunity because they wanted nothing more than to bring the families together; been in love with Juliet themselves; etc
Romeo had met someone else.
And on and on.

Ideas are everywhere. And in the end they don’t matter so much because, again, there’s how you get into your story and there’s how your get out of your story. And those are two very different things. And when you’re relaxed enough to listen to a character, you can get a story out of nearly anything. And I started the last four sentences with the word “and.”

If you have faith in yourself as a writer then the “big idea” at the beginning of the process isn’t as important. They’re still great, and they still come along, but you’ll come to realize that after the big idea comes a whole bunch of work of all different kinds during which the big idea sometimes has to be ditched for something else. And you will trust in yourself to do that work. You can have great ideas that don’t turn into stories, and you can have stories that didn’t come out of great ideas. The second is probably better.

Then again, what do I know?

Look, it’s very simple. You just do whatever it is you need to do in order to finish your story. And, secondly, what worked for one story will not necessarily be right for the next story. So you need to just put one foot in front of the other and figure it out as you go.

Now stop reading this and go write something.


  1. Do I have to go write something? It just took me two days to write 307 words. I have felt uncreative and uninspired and it’s been horrible. Worse yet, I am now working on three projects at the same time while throwing together short articles for publication. I am having trouble coming up with ideas for those as well. Sigh.

    This was not bad writing advice, despite what you think. Sometimes we just need the perspective of someone else to reflect on for a while to clear our own vision. You have provided that. Thank you.