Breaking the Writing Commandments

Kitten lying on its back among flowersAs I mature as an author, I’ve started to realize that a lot of writing advice—even advice that’s widely touted as “good”—is really quite bad for me.

Whether advice is good or bad for you has more to do with you than with the advice. For instance, a lot of people struggle with negative self-talk. That’s not me, and never has been. I’m fond of saying that I don’t have an inner critic—I have an inner cheerleader. So advice that’s aimed at silencing the inner critic is really quite awful for me.

To know whether writing advice is good for you, it’s important to understand what the advice is meant to achieve. If it’s trying to solve a problem you don’t have, following it can make you unhappy and unproductive. Here are some examples of writing advice that’s turned out to be terrible for me.

Set Word Count Goals

Purpose: Ensure productivity

Productivity has never been a problem for me. I love to write. I’ve got a great relationship with my muse. Nothing makes me happier than writing fiction all day long. But the moment I set a word count goal, writing goes from being a joy to being a chore. I look for reasons to avoid it. So, no more word count goals for me.

Write Every Day

Purpose: Establish a consistent writing practice

As with any intense activity, if you write every day, there’s a good chance you’ll burn out. You need time to refill the well, because that’s where your stories come from: your experiences, your joys, your worries. You must have a life outside writing, and that means some days, you won’t have time to write. That’s okay.

If you’re writing most days, that’s probably good enough. If you’re writing a day or two a week (or less), then setting up a strict writing schedule, and sticking to it, might be a good practice for you, at least for a while. But even during periods when I’m not writing as often as I should, telling myself I have to write every day turns it into a chore (see above).

Finish the Book

Purpose: Complete a manuscript instead of continually tinkering with it

Obviously, at some point, you have to finish the book, or there’s no point. (Well, some manuscripts turn out to be practice ones with no future, and that’s fine, too.) But you don’t have to finish one book before you move on to another. I’ve probably got a dozen manuscripts in some stage of development. I like to write things down as they come into my head—whether it’s a logline, a scene, a synopsis, or whatever. My stories develop slowly, with my unconscious mind working on them over time. Some manuscripts I tinker with a lot as the story unfolds in my brain. Then there are the crunch times, when I know the story, and just have to get the book out to meet my publishing goals.

I’ve learned that I spend a lot of time cocooning, which is then followed by a flurry of activity. That’s my process. You need to find the process that works for you, and it may not be the one prescribed by a writing instructor.

Show, Don’t Tell

Purpose: Write scenes instead of summary

I naturally write in scenes. My first drafts are almost all dialogue, with a few stage directions, like a screenplay. But fiction isn’t like television or the movies. It requires much more description. Sometimes you need to state outright what the point-of-view character’s scene goal is. “She needed to convince the banker to let her into her brother’s safe deposit box, so she could find a clue to his whereabouts” sounds a lot like telling to me. But without this information, readers might have no idea of the purpose of the scene, or why they should care.

Limit Backstory

Purpose: Avoid a data dump

I naturally open my stories in media res, at the height of the action. I tend to start too late, with the inciting incident, rather than too early, talking about the protagonist’s childhood. I probably care less about the protagonist’s childhood than readers do. I need to add backstory, not to eliminate it. (If you want a great example of the importance of backstory and how to weave it artfully into a novel, read Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.)

No one ever created art by following the rules. Art comes from breaking them, from trying something no one’s ever tried before. If other people’s voices are limiting you, like they did me, then stop listening. Trust yourself first.

What writing advice that sounded good at the time has turned out to be bad for you?

Image Copyright: vvvita / 123RF Stock Photo

Secrets to Staying Young

This past week I turned 50, and while some of you might be groaning at this feat, I’m rejoicing. Celebrating! For a whole week, which at my age, can prove challenging. But I refuse to give in to the aging process. It’s not for sissies, that’s for sure. I mean, getting out of bed each morning can prove daunting in and of itself, what with stiff joints and muscles, puffy eyes and an over-tired brain from an over-active mind throughout the night. But should I let that stop me from enjoying the day?

Freemont Street

Heck, no! I’ve got too much to do, too much to see–and that’s the key to aging well, or rather, staying young. Action. Intrigue. And the element of surprise…

For me, that translated to a trip to Vegas. It was my first time and probably won’t be my last. From the fountains of Bellagio to the free-wheelers on Freemont Street and the sky-high Ferris Wheel, there’s something for everyone to see and experience in this town–and everyone has an opinion on what that should be.

Venice in Vegas

I felt like a virgin getting advice on her “first time” when I told people I was going to Vegas and had never been. Their eyes lit up, smiles curled their lips and they whispered in disbelief, “You’ve never been?” Then all proceeded to tell me what I HAD to see and HAD to do while I was there.

sweet delights

I confess I didn’t make it through all the suggestions, but I certainly ate and drank my way through the town, trying a little of this and a little of that… I also took time to stop and “smell the tulips” and appreciate the significance of turning 50 and everything it meant to me. I’m on the back side of the slope, sliding down toward my Golden Years in my last “hurrah” — decades of hurrah! While many feel their best days are behind them, I think mine are still ahead. Why?

smell the tulips

Because I’m trying new things, setting new goals and going new places. I refuse to allow my life to become routine and instead, I choose to challenge myself to reach farther, jump higher–even scare myself a little. A 550 ft. high Ferris Wheel will do that to a gal with a tad fear of heights!

But it was worth it. Great views, great sensations rolling through my emotions, churning old fears into new accomplishments… It simply felt great to be alive. And that’s what living is about, right?

Yes. In my book, life is a journey. Living is a process. A very active process, one that continually stimulates the brain cells! The adrenaline cells, the panic cells, the exuberant cells…all of them. Now, where will I go at 60? No idea. I’m still recovering from 50! :)

The real Holland

When I moved to the Netherlands all those years ago, we lived in a beach town on the North Sea. Back when we lived there, it was one of the few villages where the stores were allowed to open on Sundays, so folks flocked there in the weekends, especially those when the sun made a rare appearance. And anytime the mercury nudged up into the seventies, the beaches were packed, with Dutch and foreigners alike.

The street where we lived was a couple of miles from the beach, and a world away from the tourists. Every single person who lived on our street was Dutch, and their families had lived and worked in the village for generations. A hotel owner, a butcher, a handful of farmers. I was the only foreigner, and believe me: everybody knew it.

Especially me.

I lived there for about five minutes before I decided that becoming Dutch was my number-one goal. Not just learning the language, but sucking up the slang and the accent and the culture until I was felt and sounded like one of them. I understood my neighbors within a couple of months. I felt competent in about six. By the end of the first year, Dutch people stopped answering me in English and assumed I was one of them.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 8.17.45 AMThings in Amsterdam are different. Walk down any street here, and you’ll hear more foreign than Dutch, not just from the tourists but from expats, and I’ve yet to meet one who speaks decent Dutch. Why bother? Everyone here, from the old lady selling flowers to the guy driving the tram to the kids playing on the streets, speaks English and German and French and if you’re lucky a passible Spanish and Italian. My point? If I had only lived here, in Amsterdam instead of in that tiny village on the North Sea, I wouldn’t be half as Dutch. I’d be just any other American expat.

Saying you’ve seen Holland when you’ve only visited Amsterdam is kind of like saying you’ve seen America after a few days in New York City. As awesome as Amsterdam is, it’s not the real Holland. The real Holland is a tiny village surrounded by farms or fields of tulips for as far as the eye can see, where English is something you hear on TV, and not from the people living in the house next door. I am who I am because I’ve experienced them both.

Writing Exercise: 5 Words into Fiction

There’s a writer’s exercise I believe to be great fun (pretty sure I’ve shared about it here before). I highly recommend!

You’re given five random words by someone, anyone, and must fuse them together to create a vignette or flash fiction piece. It’s a challenging way to get the creative juices flowing, and it can be really satisfying to see what you come up with… even when it’s almost too contrived, as my example below seems when I reread it.

Some years back I was given the words binge, crow, foray, refract, and wile. (I can’t remember now who’d dealt them to me.)

 

Her hair, beautiful and harsh, is the color of a crow. This is by careful choice, and she has it dyed once a month, every third Tuesday. She loves the mystique of the hue, the way it refracts the light as a wile, almost like there’s some blue to it.

ID-100309993

Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Noah would have adored it, and so of course this is why. It is for him.

It was a month after he disappeared that she first had it colored. His foray into nothingness, hers into vanity. Because it is the single binge she’s found that stills the hurt, quiets the shame. Eating didn’t do it; she felt empty. Not drinking; she felt a waste of herself. And sleeping with Noah’s best friend, Mart, only buried guilt in her stomach and in her dreams.

So it is also for her, the hair and the rest, with the primping and pampering and perfection. It all says she is significant and strong and courageous, that she is and will be okay.

When she looks in the mirror to see what Noah left behind, she is satisfied by what she sees and she tells herself, You will be okay.

 

If there’s one thing I like about this little piece, it’s that the character comes through so strongly. I like her found sense of empowerment, that she has a thing—a simple thing – proving that, really, it comes down to decision and perspective—that affirms her status of being okay.

Now, so many years after writing this, a wholly different person than I was then, I relate to her. I appreciate her resolve, and that she herself has claimed the way it will be.

Do you want to try? Leave a comment below and I’ll give you five words.

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