Writing advice can make you feel like crap. But, hey, most advice does make you feel like crap. Sure, it’s helpful, and when it’s being given it’s even inspirational. It seems so easy when it’s laid out like that for you, nice and neat.
You tear through the book, enjoying the epiphanies, the concrete understanding of concepts that before seemed a little vague. Now you know what you’re doing. You’ll close that book and write the best seller you’ve been dreaming about for years.
What happens? Nothing. It doesn’t work. You panic. Maybe you aren’t a writer. Maybe you can’t be taught. Maybe you are talentless and should give up, find a new dream.
Books and articles on writing are the closest you’ll get to an instruction manual. The problem isn’t the advice. The problem is how you’re using the advice.
#1: You Don’t Have to Follow Instructions to the Letter
No one is going to pop out of the closet and smack you if you take a little leeway with writing advice. Process is a personal experience which means all those books and articles you’re reading are based on what worked for one person.
If there was a universal formula for writing a book, everyone would be published.
Rules for writing aren’t carved in stone. They’re changed all the time by writers doing something that hasn’t been done before.
Can’t find a process that works for you? Make one up. Borrow bits of other people’s process and put them together. Change things around until they work. You won’t get in trouble. Someday you might be the source of someone’s anxiety because your process doesn’t work for them.
#2: Process of Elimination
If you don’t know what works for you, start with what doesn’t. Take notes when you’re reading advice on writing. Make a list of all the different processes you want to try. Go back through your list and mark off everything you’ve tried that doesn’t work.
Now, here’s the important part, make notes about why it doesn’t work. Understanding the problem helps you find a solution.
A lot of books on writing tell you to write at the same time every day. The theory is that your brain picks up the habit and switches to writing mode at that time. I couldn’t do it. The pressure of that impending appointment was my undoing. I would psych myself out or some external factor beyond my control would push that appointment back. I would feel so let down and anxious that I couldn’t write about anything but how much I sucked.
My problem was that I don’t like schedules. I decided to write every day as much I can, whenever and wherever I can. I wrote more and the quality of the writing improved.
#3: Don’t Let Conflicting Advice Overwhelm You
Too much advice is a bad thing, especially when you’re just beginning. You have no process at all yet. Contradicting advice is being thrown at you from all directions. Do you have to do character bios? What the hell is a character bio? First or third person POV? To outline or not to outline?
You think your head might explode. That’s normal for writers. It means you’re learning and growing. Every time I’ve been on the brink of giving up, I’ve found my solution. So don’t lose hope.
Read a book on writing and then actually write. Take some time to let it sink in and play around with the new advice before you move on to the next thing.
Go look for more advice if it doesn’t work. If it does work, go look for more advice anyway. Just take it one step at a time to prevent nervous breakdowns.
#4: Writing is More Important than Process
Process can get in the way of writing. You worry so much about how you’re writing that what you’re writing suffers. The pressure of all that how takes the fun out of the what.
Discovering your process is part of growing as a writer. Read all you want on writing but actually putting that advice to the test is the only way to learn.
Remember writing as a kid? Did you worry about process? Probably not. You just tried different things. If it didn’t work, you moved on to the next thing.
I read Little Women for the first time when I was 11. Jo wrote tucked away in the corner of the attic. In my young, idealistic eyes this was the coolest way to write ever.
We didn’t have an attic but we had a basement. I asked my parents to lug the old (and I mean old) Apple down there for me. Being the wonderful people they are, they obliged. I loved it. And it was just an idea I got from a book. It didn’t last forever. Eventually I emerged and wrote above ground again. I’m guessing all the ghost stories I was writing finally got to me.
But see how easy that was? I didn’t feel bad when it didn’t work out. I moved on to something else and kept writing.
Writing is a craft and you can only learn your process by writing. Focus on what you want to write and you’ll find what works for you along the way. Don’t waste your time feeling bad about what doesn’t.