Monday, June 25, 2018

What's a piece of writing advice that you completely ignore? (With K. M. Weiland!)

You guys. K. M. Weiland is with us this week!!! K. M. is someone who I really admire, as an author and a teacher, so I know it's going to be a fabulous week of learning for all of us.

You probably already know about her fabulous website, Her podcast is great too, and she's kept me company many times while I've ironed or washed dishes. Numerous times I've been listening to her talk about storytelling and realized, "That is what's wrong with my book." She just has such an interesting, intelligent way of thinking about stories, and she's very generous with her knowledge.

I highly recommend Creating Character Arcs and Structuring Your Novel. I could keep fangirling, but I'll save some of it for Wednesday and Friday so we can get on with learning!

Our panel question today is:

What's a piece of writing advice that you completely ignore?

K. M.: What I’ve learned over the years is that the trick to getting the most out of any bit of writing advice is to realize its context and not take it too literally. There are lots of commonly derided bits of advice like “write what you know” that are actually totally pertinent in their place (i.e., “write what you know” doesn’t have to mean writing about your life, but rather making sure you’ve done your research).

Basically, you just have to make the advice work for you. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s either because you don’t yet understand it properly, or because it doesn’t apply to you.

In the latter category, I personally reject the idea that planning a story curbs your creativity. I’ve always been an avid outliner, and when I was first starting out, I kept running into pushback. The idea is that if you outline or structure a story, you lose all natural inspiration and end up with something totally formulaic.

What I felt instinctively then and have since learned to articulate is that there’s actually no such thing as a writer who is either a plotter or a pantser. We all plot; we all pants. It’s just that some of us do our plotting upfront in an outline and others do it afterwards in revisions.

Don’t let well-meaning advice put constraints on your creative process. Learn to harness both your creativity and your logic. You can’t write a book without both. When you learn to consciously harmonize the two, that’s where the magic really starts to happen.

Stephanie: Your response goes in tandem with my thought, which is about how the longer I write and the longer I teach about writing, how much less I use words like "never" and "always." There are really very few times that a writing rule is always true. 

I do think there's a lot of value in knowing all the "rules" and working mostly within them (or at least understanding why they exist) before you try to bust out of them. Same as how when you're learning to cook, it's helpful to understand and use recipes, but the longer you cook, the more you can improvise based on your instincts and still churn out an edible dinner.

One adage that I choose to ignore is, "No tears in the writer means no tears in the reader," or something like that. I never cry when I'm writing my books. I have gotten a bit misty with The Lost Girl of Astor Street and Within These Lines, but neither made me outright cry, even though I know they've caused tears in others.

Shannon: First off, I’m dying at Jill’s answer because ohmygosh! Yes! Some rules are just ridiculous. One of my earliest rejections revolved around the world “was” and I had to ask advice from other writers. Without exception, they all told me the agent was ridiculous. Some rules beg to be broken. For me it’s the whole “You have to write everyday” bit. Now, in all fairness, I’ve been at this awhile and I have a schedule pinned down. But some of us are not destined to be everyday writers in every season of our lives and that is okay. Breaking rules doesn’t disqualify you from publication. 

Jill: Funny, Shan! Because mine is, Never use the word “was.” I once received notes back from a contest I’d entered before I was published in which the judge highlighted every “was” in my manuscript and told me to get rid of all of them. And that’s poor advice, as is. 

Now, to be fair, overusing the word “was” (or its variants based on narrative perspective and tense), can be a sign of passive voice, and I have little doubt that my early writing had some of that. So if you find that you’re using “was” in every sentence, you might want to take a closer look for passive voice and to try and vary your sentence structure. 

But “was” is a legitimate word and sometimes the right one to use. It’s a HUGE pet peeve of mine when I see people using incorrect grammar just to avoid using the word was, like with our example from the Go Teen Writers book. To say “When I entered, Jane stirred the soup” means something different than to say, “When I entered, Jane was stirring the soup.” Neither are wrong in this case. The latter shows the continuing action of Jane stirring while the former means Jane stirred the soup once and stopped. If you mean that Jane is standing at the stove, constantly stirring the soup, then to say, “When I entered, Jane stirred the soup” is incorrect. The word “was” has value when used properly.

Your turn, writers! What's writing advice that just plain doesn't work for you?


  1. I LOOOVVVEEE this podcast.
    Anyway. Such great answers.
    I agree, rules do have their places and context, and I don’t think most of them have to be absolutes all the times.
    For me, the whole “said is dead” thing drives me nuts. Obviously, said can be overused, but so can retorted, snapped, quipped, bellowed, etc, etc.
    I also have a bit of a problem with write drunk edit sober. Not because it’s even a bad idea, because I know some people would never write at all if they didn’t give themselves the freedom to write a sloppy first draft. But for me personally, the first several years of my writing journey I used it as an excuse to write first drafts that I knew were bad without bothering to do the legwork to set down a decent story, and then when the time came to edit it was such a mess that I lost hope and gave up to move on to new stories. Now I’ve changed my approach to writing the best first draft I can. I don’t go back and edit over and over again during the first write, but I try and write clean and have my research done etc to start with. I’ve been turning out much nicer first drafts since then, and am not nearly so traumatized by editing as I used to be, because the process is actually doable now.

    1. Ha! I've never heard that phrase "write drunk, edit sober." That's funny. But it's pretty much what I tell people when I say, give yourself permission to stink on that first draft. But you're so right, Maddie. I'm glad you shared this! Just because I give myself permission to stink, doesn't mean I don't try to write well on that first draft because I know it will save me time later to do my best up front.

  2. Jill, "never using was" is a rule that I followed too religiously for a while. I really struggled with passive writing early on, and I worked very hard to learn how to write active sentences, so it took me a bit to warm up to the idea that there really are times to use was.

    1. I know! For a few years I felt like I was breaking some sort of commandment every time I used "was." LOL Such freedom to throw out that rule!

  3. It makes me happy to read the responses of you girls. I relate to all of these! So much. LOL

  4. I love your thoughts, K. M. They really resonate. I am so glad we get to steal your brain for a week!

  5. Thanks so much having me this week, ladies! :)

  6. From what I've seen (which includes a lot of thoughtful writers explaining just why "write what you know" is a poorly-worded bit of advice, which beginning writers often misunderstand) it's less "write what you know" and more 'know what you're talking about". Perhaps it might be better said "know what you write". But that's a common one and it does annoy me when people spout it off as if it's an infallible rule.

  7. Great post, thank you! At my first conference last year, the fiction instructor kept using absolutes such as "Never ever use 'said'", "Always end chapters with a cliffhanger", etc. When she heard my book had 60-some chapters she (rather rudely) said something like, "Oh my, no! A book should never have more than 30 chapters."
    That really bugged me. As a new writer, I wasn't sure what to believe, but I had an inkling that writers' 'rules' don't have to always be so absolute. They sounded more like her (or her publisher's) preferences that she'd made into laws.
    So I guess the piece of writing advice I reject is that there are absolute rules to writing. I like to take them with a grain of salt. :-) (Or like Ms. Weiland said, understand them in context.)

  8. Mine is probably "Just use said. Variety clutters the writing." Totally disagree, though I'll admit "said" is okay to use most of the time, but to me, that word is distracting! It gets way overused. But that's just my opinion, not the law, lol!

  9. I blatantly ignore the wearying advice "Don't use the word 'said.'" Most people who've given it to me seem to forget that "said" is a completely legitimate word, and that sometimes (most times for me, in fact) there is no better word to use! That's not to say I use "said" all the time, though: sometimes characters don't "say" things, after all, but rather mumble them, shout them, etc. I could see how this might go the other way, too, depending on your natural style of writing--I tend to write dialogue that involves characters "saying" a lot of things, but someone else who writes more lively dialogue/includes more action in dialogue-heavy scenes would probably be less inclined to use "said" as the characters would be "saying" fewer things.