Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Recently (in 3 Writing Myths You Should Feel Free To Ignore), we talked about why it might be okay to vary your dialogue tags or make strategic use of the passive voice, and what it actually means to write realistic dialogue. Today, I’d like to call into question a few more myths about what writers ‘must’ do and discuss when so-called rules are useful and when it’s better to go your own way.
Myth #4: Plot is everything… or character is everything
The very fact that there’s a debate ought to be a flag on this one. Some books might emphasize plot and others character. Beware of advice that tells you to focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Books like The Name of the Wind and Gone Girl ride high on their riveting plots, but flat characters would have killed those stories. Don Quixote is a character-heavy book, but how could readers access Quixote’s eccentricity if he never went anywhere or did anything?
Even books that resist plot – Human Acts by Han Kang or anything by Jack Kerouac – involve some measure of time, aging, encountering new influences, mental processes, and all the other elements that are part of the ebb and flow of life. They may not follow a story arc, but seem rather to represent a segment of a story arc, taken under a microscope and cut off from its beginning and end by a book jacket. This is more akin to most people’s experience of real life, where nothing gets wrapped up neatly by the end of page 371. It does not evade plot; it uses it in a different way.
Books that are light on plot can make up for it with rich philosophy (The Writing of the Disaster), poetry (In Search of Lost Time), style (The One Hundred Nights of Hero or Les Liasonnes Dangereuse), language (Collected Fictions), or characters (The Song of the Lark). Even so, they are not excluded from some manner of plot, even if it is the more abstract form represented by the Beats and Dorothy Richardson.Eschewing character for plot, or vice versa, ignores how each improves the other.Click To Tweet
Good characters have plots, just like interesting people have interesting lives. Depending on your style, you might prefer to graph plots like John McPhee or you might take a more free-spirited approach, a la Proust. On the flip side, good plots can’t be carried by lame characters. Good writing needs both, even if artistry bends and manipulates the forms.
Myth #5: You have to write every day
If writing-every-day-come-rain-or-the-apocalypse works for you, please: keep doing what you’re doing and skip to Myth #6. For the rest of us, there may be a number of reasons why this advice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The first is that real life is hard, busy, full, and important. Trying to write every day at all costs can lead to burnout. Cal Newport gives a rigid daily writing schedule this winning review: ‘I crashed and burned.’ If forcing a daily habit is stressing you out, it’s not going to yield great results. Instead, work with your real-life schedule. Slot writing spurts on the slower days and give yourself a break once in a while. You’ll come back to the computer/typewriter/tablet refreshed and ready to work.
At the same time, it’s possible that a daily dose alone isn’t going to be good enough. Lots of college students spend countless hours writing papers and never improving their writing skills (up to 45% by some estimates). In this case, as The Writing Cooperative’s Nico Ryan puts it, ‘merely doing lots of writing doesn’t automatically make you a more talented writer.’ He likens the writing experience to learning music versus learning to snowboard. In the latter, your body’s response to gravity will mean improvement with daily practice. But if one sits down at the piano every day without any music, instruction, or feedback, there’s no guarantee you’ll improve.Small bursts of writing may not be enough to truly hone your skills.Click To Tweet
Writers must be out in the world, fully open to their experience. Margaret Atwood says, ‘In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.’ Michael Crichton had a similar observation: ‘I eventually realized that direct experience is the most valuable experience I can have.’ One could arguably have a lot of rich real-life experiences and maintain a daily writing habit, but there’s something to be said for total severance from your work while you live and grow.
Or maybe you just need a break between stories. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of worlds, styles and characters. Lay them to rest, go do something else, and then resume your writing with fresh perspective.
An author’s relationship with writing is supposed to be love or love-hate, not hate-hate. If you don’t like writing every day, don’t. Forced work can easily become unproductive work. Instead, do what works for you. Binge once in a while. Take advantage of high-energy phases to write prolifically so you don’t have to beat yourself up when you’re feeling dry. That’s not to say that you should give yourself carte blanche to do whatever; doing whatever works for you means doing whatever works for you, but if that’s not a daily schedule, there’s no reward for wasting your time out of a sense of duty.
Myth #6: Don’t listen to criticism
Saul Bellow is quoted as having said, ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ He’d probably redact that statement if he read some of the things I’ve written in a hazy half-sleep. The advice to ignore criticism is often given in a ‘you’re the final judge’ way. That’s true, of course, but criticism can add a lot of value.
We have blind spots. All of us. When we’re writing for others, it’s important to receive external perspectives. If something works really well for me and doesn’t work for my editor, friend, or colleague, I’m probably going to a) take their advice without balking or b) if I’m really attached, ask around. If more than a couple people agree, I’ll nix it, however much I love it.
I like this advice from Neil Gaiman: ‘When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ This is an exaggeration (why do people love the word ‘always’ so much?), but it’s important: if something doesn’t work for someone else, at least reconsider it. If they try to tell you exactly what to do, consider it a suggestion and keep your options open.
We also have knowledge gaps. All of us. Sometimes an author might need to hear, ‘I don’t think that a French woman should have the last name Ricci’ or ‘underground sewers weren’t invented yet in the 13th century.’
Probably the best way to balance your integrity and personal voice with the criticism of others is to find critics you can trust. Look for people who like or have some background in your genre. Don’t ask people who tend to be overly optimistic or overly pessimistic. Once you receive feedback, analyze it. Does it tighten up your writing? Does it add life or remove purple prose? Does it make suggestions? Does it encourage you? If so, you’ve found a winner. If you find a critic who attempts to insert their own voice and ideas, that’s when you need to follow the advice above: ignore them and find someone else.If you assume all criticism is disempowering, you cut off a hugely valuable resource.Click To Tweet
Hit and myths
Advice works best when viewed through a critical lens. Ask: how does this apply to me? Under what circumstances might this advice be weak or erroneous? Being open-minded can result in a lot of positive input and flexible output.
What about you, are you a rule-breaker or a rule-follower? What’s some of the best advice you’ve heard over the years? The worst? Let me know in the comments below, or check out 3 Reasons Why Ignoring Your Novel Is A Vital Part Of Finishing It and 3 Writing Myths You Should Feel Free To Ignore for more great advice.