You Know All Writing Advice Is Bullshit, Right?

(Related: Don’t take writing advice posted on Facebook seriously, even if said advice is posted seriously.  You save the serious shit for a blog….Um.  Ahem.)

I’ve actually debated writing this for a while now–a topic which has absolutely nothing to do with something-something-stupid-shit posted on social media–mainly because, um, it might come off like writing advice.  This wouldn’t be intended, but would most definitely bleed through with an improper choice of words.  Blame the English teacher in me.

But, y’know what?  Fuck it.  I’m all in, baby–if only because my next writing assignment, a novelette/novella, is about something that, to actually sit down and write, would depress the ever-lovin’ shit out of me.  So, yep–let’s call this my stalling post.


All writing advice you hear is, generally, bullshit.  Okay?  Bullshit.  A Grade-A steaming pile of bullshit.  It’s up to you how much, if any, you choose to shovel because, let’s be honest–bullshit’s bullshit, but you can use bullshit to grow something.  That is the most graphic I’ll get tonight.  Probably.

Writing is an art form and, like any art form, any amateur can do it; actually, the only difference between professional and amateur, really, seems to come down with people in terms of economics–can you live off your art and only your art?  No?  You’re an amateur. But, fuck, that’s okay.  It’s art.

Like any amateur being able to do it, anyone can talk about it.  Generally, the amount of talking one does on a subject is directly related to that person’s definition of “success” with that project, which is always related to one’s ego.  Negatively or positively, people who feel like shit about what they do aren’t offering up dollops of good ol’ criticism about process, are they?

So we agree on the terms–any asshole can do art and, also, any asshole can talk about art.  And, if you’re an asshole, you’ll shovel all of it.  If you’re not an asshole, you’ll be a little more discerning.  So sayeth this asshole, anyway.  Got it?  Good.

This topic gets to me on two levels, as a writer and as an editor.  Last one first: As an editor for…three?  Four?  Four years now…I’ve read tens of thousands of submitted stories and, with every story I accepted for this anthology or that magazine issue, there are a hundred (that’s not a hyperbolic number; probably conservative, actually) I’ve rejected.  With each one, I try to be specific about not only why I’m rejecting it–beyond “this doesn’t fit”–to what might help improve its chances elsewhere.  If I know the writer (rare, but it does happen; the community ain’t that big and the same names pop up), I might throw a specific market at them.  On a handful of occasions, I’ve sent other editors after certain stories, with some success.

But, and this is true, even with those little nuggets, I hesitate.  Because of the writer part of me, mostly.

I’ve said this elsewhere and I’ll come back to it: in 2012, Ellen Datlow took part of a roundtable with the HWA and said, in paraphrase, that writers tend to make terrible editors because they can’t separate themselves from the work.  Then, and now, I took it to mean (so, if I’m wrong, blame me, not Ellen) that the writer sees a story that crosses their desk through how they would write it and not, necessarily, how a story should be told (which is not the same thing–even, really, with the actual writer; I’m a big believer that there are true ways of telling a specific story, which might be counter to what the writer wants; or, as Alfred Bester put it, “the book is the boss”).

I’ve seen the truth of this time and again, and my go-to example is when I was part of a writer’s group.

Friends, lemme tell you about writer’s groups.  They can be either good or bad, depending on the makeup.  If you’re in a group where nothing gets done but empty platitudes and encouragement, get the ever-living fuck out of there.  It’s not going to do, or whatever work you do, any good; you and your stories are going to go out into the big, bad world, full of editors and publishers who do not, as a rule, give a shit about you (mainly because there are tens of thousands of you and only one of them).  They are not offering empty platitudes; they’re shutting you down and moving onto the next schmuck.  This is, coldly or not, the reality of the business.  Kind words can and are given, but not as a matter of course and certainly not every Tuesday from six p.m. till eight, when everyone breaks for dinner.

I got lucky in my writer’s group.  The basic creed was, “We’re editors and we’re looking for a reason to reject you.”  This is the basic idea behind most publications–if you have 2,000 subs and only one of you, you’re looking to whittle that slush pile down as quickly as possible.  You, as a writer, have to make your stuff sharp to stand out.

The group was made up of writers who wanted to be trashed so they could be improved.  Most of them had sold regularly.  Three of them were editors of small outfits.  When I was just starting out (in 2006; I count the beginning of my career as 2010, so watch the timeline), it was what I’d needed.

But, by 2010, I left.  I’d sold, at that time, a handful of pieces irregularly, but I was done with the group.  Nothing drama–although, as with any group, there was drama amongst others–I was just done.  Why?

Because, with each story I showed them, I began to pick up the pattern.  The pattern that each person would give me–I won’t give a breakdown here because many of them are still friends of mine and they’re good people and I don’t want to seem like I’m attacking them when I’m not–was so obvious that I could hold up each critique they did for each of my stories and interchange them.  So, I left.  I stayed in reciprocity with a few, through e-mail, but cut the rest out.

And then, after leaving, I sold four stories within a month’s span of time.  Like, that.  Stories that never saw the inside of that library conference room where we met, but was shown to a specific few people.  One story sold not two months after writing the first sentence to it (that story, by the by, was “Baby Grows a Conscience”; draft in August of 2010, sold in October).  That rhythm has continued ever since, only dipping during editing projects, and has begun to increase, with bigger paydays.

Now, some of that obviously came through more practice (one writing bias I have; I have a lot of disdain for people who say they’re writers but never fucking write, not even tell a goddamn anecdote, but continue to put that title on themselves even if the last time they put their ass in the chair to work was when George W. Bush was president; to me that’s akin to saying I’m a plumber because I unclogged a toilet once), but I put most of that to I stopped taking their advice wholeheartedly.

Every writer that’s not iconic looks at how someone else does it.  It’s natural.  I bet even the icons do it.  Show of hands, my spec-fic-writing-friends: how many of you own On Writing, by Stephen King, or have at least read it twice?  Don’t lie, now.  We want to see how the others, who might be more successful, do it and kinda compare ourselves.

But, to the beginning writer, that can be harmful as much as helpful.  When you stop measuring how you do something and start aping what someone else is doing, that’s not writing–that’s imitation.  I don’t want to know how many people picked up pens and journals when they discovered Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman wrote that way; I further don’t want to know how many of them put the pens down a week, a month, a year later, vaguely and inarticulately confused on why the magic wasn’t turning on the way it turned on for these literary titans.  Not to say it didn’t work for some (I know a few that longhand works spectacularly for), but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts it wasn’t a majority.  They weren’t measuring–they were aping.

When I left the writer’s group, I’d spent four years doing every little thing the group suggested, even if they contradicted each other.  I was trying to find my way and only got myself even more confused when I was, really, just trying to figure out what way worked for me.  (That’s the key; we’re gonna come back to it–stick around, will ya?)

But wait, you say–how do you know when to stop shoveling?  How do you know how much to shovel, if any?

Okay, let’s break this down.  Writing, as we typically discuss it, is actually three different categories fitting under this generic term:

  1. Storytelling – this is the talent portion of our program; this the innate knowledge of how a story or work progresses–the turn of phrase, the character trait, the ability to see theme and arc and be able to show that to someone else with any amount of clarity and class.  There was a big brouhaha last year about talent’s worth in professional writing.  I found the whole thing laughable, but maybe because I earn my living reading student writing and supplement that income by reading submitted writing.  (My take?  Oh, sweet Jesus does talent matter–but talent’s cheap, cheaper than gumballs; however, without it, what’s written is going to have all the pow and zam of a 1976 Chevy Nova instruction manual, no matter how much a person works on it.)
  2. Writing – this is the physical act of committing that story down in some form–computer, typewriter, journal, graffiti.  I don’t give a fuck how–it’s the exercise of telling the story.  Called the routine, commonly.  I made a crack on Twitter about a month ago, wondering aloud what the fuck people are doing if it takes months to rough out a first draft of a short story.  My tweets simul-post to my personal Facebook page and, ahem, a few people took umbrage with that, with comments comparing fast writing from everything to “barfing” to not what people who are “serious about the words” do.  I almost climbed up on my high horse on that one, ready and willing to sling some “truth” at them about how those thoughts are the equivalent to justifying dicking off–and then I stopped myself.  I write differently than others; my routine is not their routine.  Their routine might drive me bugfuck–I’m a compulsive sort; if I’m working on something, I work that fucker to the bone as quickly as possible, terrified I’ll lose the spark or get distracted, or something–but that’s because it’s not mine. And that’s cool.  They get the work done.  That’s what matters.
  3. Publishing – the business end of the whole deal.  Remember high school where your teacher would tell you “The Writing Process”, which always ended with publishing (in that case, getting your fucking essay stapled to the bulletin board)?  Hey, in that instance, your teacher was right!  Publishing is the end of the circuit, but, here, it means selling the work and having it put out into the world for as wide of an audience as possible.  However you define selling the work–traditional submission-acceptance, self-pub, blog-posting–that’s publishing.  Putting it out there for readers.

Now, when it comes to writing advice, and writing advice being bullshit, and to tie this whole thing together–most of the problems I (that’s, ahem, just me) see lie in the fact that people dish up advice that blurs those categories.  To me, you can’t mix criticism of talent with process, or process with selling.  While they all fit under that nice umbrella of writing, they are their own separate animals.

Speaking of Facebook, someone-someone posted how long a novel should be and how “professionals” know this…and got so much shit the someone-someone deleted it.  That person got shit because, while the intent might’ve been pure (I dunno; I only heard about it secondhand, got to glance at the initial post, and then poof! Gone into the ether), they were mixing categories and injecting a little of that ol’ lovable personal opinion into that and trying to pass it off as “truth”.  Generally speaking, a novel is anything upwards of 40K in words.  That’s it.  Between 20K and 39K is a novella.  Anything under is short fiction.  Simple.  An easy measurement.  You can’t qualify what’s good or right by wordcount–or, if you prefer, process.  To do so is to blur the line between categories and attempt to step in and tell someone else how to do their art.  That someone-someone fucked up.  It wasn’t the first time, probably won’t be the last.  And there are many someone-someones.  And they all want to tell you how you should tell a story, or write, or sell.

Now, I say intent might be pure in the case above because this is where publishing rears its ugly little head.  Wordcount can affect marketability.  A market only looking for stories 2K and under doesn’t want to see your goddamn 8,000-word story (so, fucking stop sending them and believing the editor will see your brilliance, okay?  I say this as the guy who has had to slug through those beasts, and their owners, that have never heard of guidelines).  But, there are markets that will look at an 8,000-word piece, or a 10,000-word piece, or a 41,000-word novel, or a 120,000-word opus.  You just have to be aware of what the market will take.  That’s it.

But, again, you say–how do you know when and how and if to shovel any of the bullshit you read about writing-in-the-general-term?

Simple.  Know how you do your art. Not just know that you do the aforementioned art, but how.  What’s your talent?  What’s your process?  How do you go about selling?  Notice the consistent pronoun there.

When you know your art, you can look at how someone else does art, and how someone talks about art, and measure without imitating.  You know what to dispense with and what to hold on.  I can’t write longhand–it drives me insane–and stick with Microsoft Word, with old-school Standard Manuscript Format (two spaces after a period FTW).  I can, and do, write consistently (thanks, Stephen King, on that one)–nightly if I’m working on a project.  I have a set specific routine: I write at night (writing in the morning always leaves me uneasy; when I have a break or vacation, I always feel at a loss), with one cup of coffee, and one specific setlist of Foo Fighters songs (totaling 72 minutes).  I take three cigarette breaks.   And, every night, I put down between 1,200-2,500 words.  Every night.  That’s my process, the way I access my talent.  Thanks to Craig Spector, who told me this nugget when I threw out a hand for help once, years ago, I always do a read-edit of the previous day’s work before starting the session.  I draft a certain number of times.  I send it out to a certain number of beta-readers, varying the personnel a little depending on subject matter.  I find markets a specific way (this latter is dwindling in a weird but cool way as editors have started seeking me out, or I write something for a specific market and it’s just sold then and there).  All my process.  It came through trial and error.  It came when I left the writing group and started focusing on how I wanted to do work and how I did do the work.  When I shut out the noise of the constant advice, I was able to hear how I played the music.

Ewww.  That was a little pretentious there.  Moving on.

When I give advice on a rejected story, I stick strictly to that story–I don’t presuppose how someone did it, or give generalities about talent or publishing.  Honestly, I don’t give a fuck about the writer when it comes to a story.  Alfred Bester–man, when it came to writing advice, his nugget was the gold standard with me as both a writer and editor.  So, because I don’t give a fuck, I look at a story as just this piece and what, to me as a reader, it’s trying to say.  I’ve learned, through experience, that I don’t necessarily have to worry about my view being biased because a) I tell the writer that this is all just my individual opinion to take or leave up front and b) often, the story’s not something I would’ve even have thought to write in the first place (and this is a good thing).

Okay, asshole, you say (and fuck you, little buddy)–why should I listen to you about this?

Well, first–points for reading to the end?  And, second–you shouldn’t, if it doesn’t help you.

It’s just bullshit.

Some bullshit, though, helps you grow something else.

Oh, and as for this being a stalling post, a delay to avoid my new project because the plot is, to me, dark and heartbreaking:


Hey, Michael, I’m working!



2 thoughts on “You Know All Writing Advice Is Bullshit, Right?

  1. Yes, I have read King’s On Writing.

    Here is a little story I love to tell whenever someone asks me if he has talent:

    Once upon a time there was a young artist (or musician or writer) who thought he had talent and dreamed of pursuing a career as an artist (or musician or writer).

    One day, this young artist (or musician or writer) met Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) and asked the Great Master if his painting (score or poem) showed talent. Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) looked at the painting (listened to the score, read the sonnet or story) and shook his head in despair. “Do you really want my advice?” asked the Great Master. “Of course,” said the young man. “Then you should give up this silly notion of wanting to become a great artist (or musician or writer) and instead take up a valuable trade or become a merchant.”

    The young man was heartbroken. He thanked the Master for the good advice. Then he went off to pursue a career as a merchant.

    Years later, the same man met Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) quite by accident at a civic function. “Maestro,” said the no-longer-young man, “I want to thank you again for the excellent advice you once gave me. Thanks to you, I am now a successful merchant, and the richest man in Rome (Munich, London).”

    “What advice did I give you?” asked the Master.

    “Why, don’t you remember? You told me to give up my thoughts of ever becoming a great artist (musician or writer). Obviously, you must have known I had no artistic talent. I took your advice and became a merchant. And now I am wealthy and very happy.”

    “I never said you had no talent,” said the Master. “In fact, I seem to remember you had great talent.”

    “But, then, why on earth did you tell me to give up thoughts of becoming an artist (musician or writer) and become instead a merchant?”

    “I say that to everyone who asks if they have talent. You see, my friend, many men have talent. But only those who know in their innermost hearts that they were meant to become artists (or musicians or writers) and therefore disregard my advice–only those–will ever become great. You see, it makes no difference what I tell them (or what I told you). If they (you) have what it takes to become great, then they (you) will do it despite (or in spite of) whatever I tell them. You, my friend, were not meant to be an artist (or musician or writer). If you had been, what I said would never have mattered at all.”

    © Copyright 1987 Paul Dale Anderson


  2. Pingback: On Writing, Workshops, Irony, Hyperbole, and Privilege (Writing Advise Is Bullshit, Part Two: The Bullshit Strikes Back) | The Nothing-Space

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