When Advice Isn’t

SleepingBuddhaI’ve heard it stated that “no one should give writing advice unless you’ve written at least ten million words.” The number of words varies sometimes, but it’s always high. Then there are other caveats attached, such as “unless you’ve had some measure of success” or “you’re known for a type of fiction/nonfiction” or…”<insert caveat here>.”

Now and again I’ll talk about writing on this page, and frankly after thirty plus years pushing words together I have no idea how many I’ve written. It might be fewer than ten million words. It might be greater. I don’t really care, as this never had much to do with the way I kept score in the first place. I always leaned more toward “Is this story better than the last one? Is it different? Is this progress or am I treading water?” Treading water was a sign of the dreaded plateau, where you know you’re writing at the top of your game, and it’s all at least good, probably publishable…and you are not getting better. Someone, possibly Gardner Dozois, once described writing progress as a series of plateaus. If you’re lucky and work hard, you eventually break through. Perhaps a new direction. Perhaps you simply get an order of magnitude better at what you’re (to whatever degree) known for. Then comes the next plateau, and eventually you reach one where you cannot break through no matter how hard you try, or you simply do not live long enough to find the next level.

Grim? Not really. There’s a lot to be said for doing what you love at the top of your game, whatever that level happens to be. You understand that this is not the goal, but a natural result of reaching for the goal. So long as you understand the difference, you’re doing it right.

So. Was that writing advice? I maintain that it wasn’t. Almost anytime you hear a writer talking about writing, all they’re doing is laying out their own understanding at whatever stage they happen to be, or in essence, talking to themselves. Sometimes it is helpful to other people. In workshop settings, it can be extremely helpful with the right student and the right teacher. But at heart, that is all it is. If what you hear makes no sense to you, there’s a reason, and that reason is you’re not at the right place in your own progress to understand it. That is not a problem unless you turn it into one by trying to apply it as advice to a situation where it is neither appropriate nor even advice. It is a statement of understanding, and that understanding might not be yours, because we may all be in this together, but we’re together alone, and that is grim.

At least, in my current understanding.

In Which I Confess My Lack of Love for the Pen

WRITING 02I’m forever without a pen. The ink kind. I almost never seem to be carrying one when I need it. I have read that is simply not acceptable. Writers should always carry pens. What if inspiration suddenly hits? What if you need to make notes on a scene? What if…?

If inspiration really hits, I’ll remember it long enough to get to my keyboard. If I need to make notes about a scene, I make them in my head and likewise remember them long enough to get to a keyboard. If I don’t remember, then they’re better off forgotten if they’re so forgettable in the first place. I’ve made notes before, when I was away from the computer for days on end. Then when I got back I tried to read said notes. Carol looks over my shoulder. “Can you read that?” Me: “No, but I vaguely remember what it was about.”

I do have lousy penmanship, especially when the pen is trying to keep up with what my brain is telling me, and failing miserably. Which may be why I just don’t associate an ink pen or even a pencil with writing and never really have–it was only after I learned how to type that I was able to get serious about writing in the first place. So I don’t feel the need to carry an ink pen around. Which means, of course, that I never have one when I need one. Which is mostly to mark “not at this address” to the letters addressed to the student who had this PO box before I did, has been out of school for, oh, 10 years now, and still has mail being sent to this box.

I know pens are useful. I even know that there are still writers who compose in long hand and couldn’t work any other way. I do know that. I just don’t understand it. When I’m stalled and mulling, a pen is useless, and when I’m on fire, it can’t keep up. Yet I do really like and appreciate a fine pen. They look classy on a desk. Just don’t ask me to write with the darn thing.

Sparing Your Darlings

“Murdering Your Darlings.” Yesterday the subject came up in the context of cutting good material that nevertheless no longer belonged in the story you’re working on. That is, the case of a paragraph or page of chapter which is well-written, interesting in its own right, perhaps even particularly fine, but neither advances the plot nor reveals character. In other words, it’s just not pulling its weight, therefore it’s adding weight and slowing your story down. It has to go. That’s often the sense in which that phrase is used today, but it occurs to me that, originally, the phrase meant something a little different.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly— and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. ”  — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” — Samuel Johnson

The rationale hasn’t really changed; the premise is that the material just doesn’t belong. Yet the subtext is that the material doesn’t belong in your story for the sole reason that it is especially fine. That is, the passage calls attention to itself rather than serving the story, and at that point it no longer belongs. There’s truth in that. For a story to work the voice and tone need to be consistent, or at least in some sort of harmony.  A passage that is so clearly out of place can jolt the reader out of the story, remind them that they’re reading and not really experiencing, and the risk is that the whole structure then collapses like the construct of shadows and mist and mirrors that it actually is.

So you murder your darlings. It’s good, tried and true advice…so far as it goes. I’m going to be a teensy bit contrarian here, and suggest that, like all advice–good or otherwise–sometimes it’s just full of crap. Continue reading