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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-12-22 04:28
Subject: [process] The best writing advice I ever got
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
This past Monday, I posted on the worst writing advice I ever received: [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. A lot of folks had something to say about it.

The most consistent critique of my remarks arose from a rejection of the framing I'd placed. I made some broad statements about what does and does not constitute good fiction.

Now, as it happens, my recent rhetoric notwithstanding I am pretty firmly in the camp that says there is virtually no canonical writing advice. The only universal I can in good conscience determine is "Write more." Meaning, whatever you're doing, keep doing it, and maybe do a bit more.

Everything else falls into the trap of individualized process, divergent experience and changing expectations. What one writer (perhaps me) passionately believes about the role of auctorial emotion in the story on the page could be nonsensical or even destructive to another writer.

Yet at the same time, even in that context there are a number of pieces advice that have a fairly wide applicability. "Finish everything you start." "Don't self-edit while drafting." "Keep stories in the mail." Surely there are exceptions to each of those examples, but for most writers, most of the time, they are at least useful if not canonical.

In that spirit, I offer the best writing advice I ever received. It was from Ray Vukcevich, a brilliant writer whose genre could perhaps be characterized as magic realism, or perhaps not. He once told me, "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting."

That was such a gnomic utterance that I'm still not sure I understand it, but it's also a damned fine piece of advice. I even wrote an entire article about it a few years ago. Like most profound advice, the trick is in sorting out how to apply it. Ray's comment has been a mantra to me for many years.

What's the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

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selfavowedgeek: Ric Flair
User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2010-12-22 13:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Ric Flair
re: "He once told me, 'Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting.'"

Best advice ever read goes to Elmore Leonard: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

Best advice ever received goes to my 12 Lit/Comp Engish teacher: "You know that I play the drums. Writing's a lot like playing the drums, Berry. There's a time and a place for going all-out on a solo, but, more often than not, it's just enough to keep the beat." [sidenote: Same teacher? The inspiration behind my becoming a teacher years ago.]

By the by, thanks for sharing these writing-related posts, Jay.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
mikandra
User: mikandra
Date: 2010-12-22 22:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
reading from back to front rocks! I usually do it with one of the later drafts.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-22 22:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How does that actually work for you? Do you literally read each line backwards, or do you read sentences/paragraphs/scenes straight but in reverse order?

I think reading a novel mss backwards would drive me waaay over the edge.
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mikandra
User: mikandra
Date: 2010-12-22 22:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I read chapter by chapter.

Another thing I do is put scraps of paper with all the chapter numbers in a jar (I have a nice jam jar decorated by my daughters on my desk for that purpose), and randomly draw out numbers of chapters I'll work on. This forces me concentrate on that chapter, and stops me going 'yeah, yeah, I know how that one goes'. It's especially useful towards the end of the editing process.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-12-22 14:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've heard Ray's advice framed in terms of sculpture...which, oddly enough, makes sense. I forget which sculptor said it, but he said something to the effect that he cut away all the parts that didn't belong.
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2010-12-22 23:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reading
I've always heard it as coming from Michelangelo, but I have no idea if it really did.
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-12-22 14:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's a good one. My favorite piece of advice, and the comment I meant to offer on your "worst advice" post came from a brilliant high school english teacher. He told us, "Take the personal and make it universal." I believe I once read an editorial by Gardner Dozois that contained the same thing, but in cruder phrasing, "Bring on the jets of semen." I wish I knew where to find that essay to link to it, because obviously it needs more context.

My interpretation of both bits of advice is that when you dig down to the most unique, idiosyncratic experiences of your own life, and write about or from those, you will touch universal truths and create something that anybody can connect with. The caveat, obviously, is that you can't be wedded to your own myopic interpretation of that event--you have to work toward truth. It can't be a therapy couch moment, where you're crying because it wasn't fair. You have to find the truth in the experience, and if you do it right, readers who don't have the same experience, or anything even close, will nonetheless relate to it in a powerful way. I believe this is why people say not to make therapy out of writing, but they are only half right.

I probably think of those words, "Take the personal and make it universal," several times a week. They haunt and inspire me and prod me to dig deeper when I want to stay safe. I was very lucky to have that English teacher. I know a number of very good writers (in addition to myself) who studied with him.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-22 14:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's an awfully good one, yes.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-12-22 15:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Geoff Ryman told me never to reread the WiP until the first draft is finished. It works for me.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-22 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's closely related to my rubric of not editing during the first draft process...
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madrobins
User: madrobins
Date: 2010-12-22 15:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There are probably several "bests" (although I got my own version of "cut out the parts that aren't interesting" from a workshop-mate some years ago, and still prize it). But the best practical advice came with my editorial letter on my first (historical romance) book:

"Laughing is more fun to do than to read about." Which (aside from persuading me to take out all the bits where my characters were amused by each other without letting the reader in on the gag) I took to mean, it's my job to evoke an emotion when I can, rather than describe it.
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kellymccullough
User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-12-22 16:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This: "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting" is fabulous. The best advice I ever got was to "Write something that makes you want to write."
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-12-22 17:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For me, the best advice I have is advice I figured out myself:

"Figure out what things help you write more, and do them. Avoid the ones that slow you down." If critique groups help, do them. If they hinder, stop. If rereading a WIP helps you write more, do it. If making yourself write every day, or listening to other people's advice, or bitching to your friends helps you write more, do it. Otherwise....

At this point, my writing toolbox is pretty well stocked. Cracking that sucker open is the trick now.

The worst piece of writing advice, for me, is this:

"Write every day."

Counterintuitive, I know, but when I'm going through a dry spell, the biggest help to getting the juices flowing again is being kind to myself, and not pushing.

It'd be a funny old world if we were all the same. :)
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Julie
User: quaero_verum
Date: 2010-12-22 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It really does just go to show that formulas and advice might be helpful, but it's all relative.

I think that's probably one of the biggest factors that makes the act of writing so personally satisfying for me - anything really does go, depending on the situation.

If you want coffee, then make coffee - not tea. So to speak. ;-)
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-12-22 20:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hear, hear. :)
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slweippert: buried in books
User: slweippert
Date: 2010-12-22 17:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:buried in books
Best writing advice I got was early in my learning curve. Go to your local library and work through their 808 shelf(how to write). Some of the stuff I learned didn't help so much, but the majority of the books I checked out made me a better writer.

The best part is a library is free!
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oaksylph: cypress
User: oaksylph
Date: 2010-12-22 17:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:cypress
William Kittredge to age-17-hyper-perfectionist-nervous-me:

"Don't wait until you've thought about it. You will never be old enough or experienced enough to capture everything. Just get some damn words on the page. You can change them later."
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Julie
User: quaero_verum
Date: 2010-12-22 19:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This!!
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mikandra
User: mikandra
Date: 2010-12-22 22:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There is some good stuff here, and I agree with all of it.

One of the most valuable things someone said to me, very early on, before I had even started to attend writing groups was:

You have an entire book to tell a story. Don't try to get it all on the first page

It's something I keep repeating, both to myself and to others, because a lot of drafts start off in a rush and kind of peter out after a while. All that's wrong is that you have an uneven pacing. Keeping little revelations going throughout.

Some other good advice I've had runs counter to some of the things mentioned above:

If it's not working, don't waste any more time on it until you've figured out how to fix it

I've seen writers spend years and years fiddling with manuscripts that are fundamentally broken. They tend to become a broken record, playing the same track over and over again. That's the flipside of 'finish what you start'.
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e_bourne
User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-12-23 06:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Without a doubt, from Kris Rusch, "Just write. It doesn't matter if it's crap. You can fix crap. You can't fix it if you don't write it."

For me, everything else is frosting.
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