[process] The best writing advice I ever got

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?

9 thoughts on “[process] The best writing advice I ever got

  1. To me, the two most useful books on writing were:
    (1) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, an autobiography and writing guide by Stephen King, the 1st edition having been published in 2000, the new 10th Anniversary edition recommended;
    (2) Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You [Mass Market Paperback]
    Ray Bradbury

    Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King’s On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You’re right there with the young author as he’s tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London’s. It’s a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches, not Sandra Dee. “I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.” But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” As a young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife’s intervention, which he describes). “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing.”

    King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer’s “tool kit”: a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s leanness, Grisham’s authenticity, Richard Dooling’s artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman’s sentence fragments. He explains why Hart’s War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool could be the antidote.

    King isn’t just a writer, he’s a true teacher. –Tim Appelo

    Publishers Weekly
    As the title suggests, science fiction master Bradbury occasionally sounds like a Zen sage (“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”), but for the most part these nine lightweight, zestful essays dispense the sort of shoptalk generally associated with writers’ workshops. The title piece aims to help the aspiring writer navigate between the self-consciously literary and the calculatingly commercial. Other essays deal with discovering one’s imaginative self; feeding one’s muse; the germination of Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine in his Illinois boyhood; a trip to Ireland; science fiction as a search for new modes of survival; and the author’s stage adaptation of his classic novel Fahrenheit 451. Eight poems on creativity round out the volume; noteworthy are “Doing Is Being” and “We Have Our Arts So We Won’t Die of Truth.”
    Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

  2. Gregory Feeley says:

    John Updike once said, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” This is close to what Ray V. was saying: that literary language should engage the cognitive and emotional facilities at the highest level, and that any sentence or paragraph that is not doing this with as much intensity as the writer can manage should probably be scrapped.

  3. Mur says:

    The advice that’s stuck with me has been Neil Gaiman’s answer to “what do you say to writers who say they want to write but have no time?” He shrugged and said, “okay. you don’t have to write.”

    That was the toughest love answer, in Gaiman’s signature gentleness, that stayed with me, because it’s an answer with layers. No one cares if I write or not-in the beginning, I mean. And that is sobering, in that it is my goal to make them care (and — WHAT? The world is NOT waiting for my genius????), and *freeing* in that I can write whatever art, or schlock, that I want, in order to please myself, learn, or just experiment.

    Also, in that one sentence, he reminded me that writing is not something we need permission to do, and it is not our destiny. It’s what we do if it’s a priority. That’s all.

    Or at least, that’s what I got out of that one sentence. 🙂 Whether he meant all that or not, I’m not sure, but it made an impact on me.

  4. Best advice so far, “No everybody needs to cut for their second draft. You, my boy, need to add. You need to add a lot more.”

    It took me a while to internalize that, having first to uproot and scourge the concept of “Second Draft = First Draft – 10%.” Once I got that through my skull I’ve been doing a lot better.

  5. I’ve had a few, most of which I now drill into the heads of my students. But the best bit of advice I’ve ever had was: “There is no ONE way. There is only your way.”

    That freed my up to stop finding the ‘secret’ to writing and start discovering my own process.

  6. Griffin says:

    Mark Van Name:

    Ass in chair. Write. Every damn day.

  7. Mysti Parker says:

    Slow down. Stop trying to rush through the scene. Put yourself there and invoke all the senses.

    And read your story out loud!

  8. Cora says:

    For me the best writing advice was: “Set yourself a small minimum wordcount goal, e.g. 100 words, and commit to writing those 100 words every single day. Because even on the busiest day, you can manage at least 100 words. But on a good day you can manage much more.”

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