[process] The worst writing advice I ever got

I’ve been thinking about life lately, for obvious reasons. Life, and illness, and the changes that come upon us all. I’ve also been writing a lot lately. The fascinating thing to me is how much of those deep and difficult thoughts emerge in my fiction. Filtered through the machinery of my subconscious (hi, Fred!) and then again through the lens of the story.

The worst writing advice I ever received, years before I grew good enough to be published, was “Writing is not therapy.” I have come to believe this is very nearly opposite the truth. I think what the advice-giver meant was “don’t write thinly disguised romans-a-clef about your emo bullshit”, but even that isn’t really true. For one thing, that is an unkind but accurate description of The Specific Gravity of Grief, which I think is a story that succeeds precisely because of the raw emotion I poured into it. As a result of that advice, I was left for a very long time with a vision of the craft of fiction as somehow being a noble pursuit separate from the grubby realities of my own life.

Yet good fiction must work at the emotional level first and foremost. Badly plotted, poorly characterized, ineptly-written fiction can succeed because of emotional appeal. Brilliantly wrought prose can fail because of a lack of emotion. We’ve all seen examples of both. It is our own strongest emotions that force the power into those words on the page. Not our control of them.

To me, the process is inseparable from my own experiences. At this point, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(And on a related note, yesterday I had cause to remark to a friend anent my execrable poetry that my prose is often poetic, but my poetry is always prosaic. Speaking of emotional vehicles.)

What’s the worst writing advice you ever got?

10 thoughts on “[process] The worst writing advice I ever got

  1. Charles says:

    Hey Jay,
    Been keeping up with you through Twitter. I think I’ve spent a lot of time writing what I think people would want instead of what I want to write, and thus it lacks the emotional punch you’re talking about. Gonna try to fix that. Good post.

  2. Gregory Feeley says:

    Isaac Asimov once said that you should trust your publisher, in his case, Doubleday. He also didn’t use an agent, and said that he didn’t understand the need for them. If any talented writer dealt with Doubleday sans agent, and trusted the company to look out for his interests, he would have been ill-served indeed.

    1. Jay says:

      Hah. That is mind boggling advice.

      Actually, I think that falls into that category of “advice given by well-established writers that might have been true [n] years ago, but the world has changed for new writers and they didn’t notice because the changes didn’t affect them”.

  3. Cora says:

    Worst advice was probably, “You’ve got such a great voice, but why do you waste it by always writing about spaceships or murders? Why don’t you write something about real life like [some Scottish writer the name of which I forgot five minutes after receiving this advice] who writes such wonderful stories about Scottish working class people.”

    I replied, “Sorry, but I’m neither Scottish nor working class and my life is totally boring.”

    Blanket advice such as “Get rid of all adverbs or all instances of passive voice” is up there as well. Particularly when given by someone who has no freaking clue what passive voice actually is.

    I agree that emotional punch is important for a piece of fiction to succeed. The main reason why I read less “pure” SF and fantasy these days and more hybrid genres such as urban fantasy, SF romance, paranormal romance, etc… is that those hybrid genres are often better at delivering the emotional punch. I’ve also noticed that my writing got a lot better, once I figured out how to up the emotional ante in my own work.

    Regarding “writing isn’t therapy”, the reasoning behind that bit of advice is probably that in every beginners’ writing workshop there usually is at least one person who writes thinly disguised autobiographical fiction about some deep, dark trauma they experienced. At the university lit mag I was involved with, they had a whole subgenre of “exchange student romance that ends tragically” and most of them were horrible. On the other hand, they also published a first hand account by a survivor of the Dresden air raid which was absolutely stunning.

    As always, it’s down to the skills of the writer. If the writer doesn’t yet have sufficient skills, you get badly written exchange student romances that end tragically. If a writer has the skills to pull it off, you get stunning and emotionally harrowing work.

  4. I won’t nominate a specific piece, but it has to have been advice I got from my mother. I remember a number of episodes where she told me there was something ludicrously bad about my writing, but not what it was or how to fix it. This would be less than helpful coming from anyone’s mother, but mine taught literature, journalism, and writing.

    1. Jay says:

      Wow. Just… wow.

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