Taking a break from writerly advice

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This may be one of the more counterintuitive posts ever made on this site, but bear with me. There’s method to my madness.

I love writing for Magical Words. I really do. Sometimes I struggle to come up with good subject matter for a post (apologies, world, for that) and sometimes my comments are dull, self-evident or overly dry, but I’m committed to the site and its purposes and I genuinely believe that writers find it useful at least occasionally. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be part of the team.

But I also know that writers’ sites like MW present such a wealth of information (some of it different in approach, even contradictory) that it can be overwhelming, that the sheer abundance of thoughtful takes on any number of writerly issues can become daunting, can become—in fact—the opposite of what it was intended to be. Sometimes advice to writers doesn’t facilitate, it paralyzes. People sit down to write and suddenly they feel the weight of everything they’ve ever read about world building or character development pressing down on them, like they are balancing an inverted pyramid on their heads: thousands of cubic tons of stone weighing down on their creative faculties. They stare at the screen, stymied by all that writerly wisdom (conventional and otherwise), and they write nothing at all.

There’s another, related problem. Writers sometimes get so absorbed by sites like this, by books on writing, by classes and the like, that these things become ends in themselves. They spend hours mulling issues ABOUT writing and in their heads this becomes a surrogate for actually DOING the writing. They are invested in the craft—their brains point out—they are researching the business and somehow—somehow—they are becoming better writers in the process. Except, of course, that they aren’t if they aren’t actually writing.

Part of the issue is that advice about writing (as with all kinds of advice) needs to land at just the right time. For me, sites like MW provide wonderful assessment tools by which I can look at a manuscript I’ve already produced and see what isn’t working, and how I can make it better. Sometimes posts here will help me think about a core idea or inspire me to think about a future project.

But for the most part I don’t want my head too cluttered with other people’s thoughts about writing when I’m first drafting a story. I need to be in the silence of my own thoughts and dreams then, and I certainly don’t want to be dogged by the fear that, based on advice I’ve read, I might be Doing It Wrong. If you are at all like me, you may need to use sites like this sparingly depending on the developmental stage of your project. Read while you mull a new book and while you rework it, perhaps, but take a break during the drafting stage. Ignore our words (however magical) and focus on yours.

Let me say it again: I love this site and believe fervently that it offers good, constructive advice for writers. But I also know that many writers (myself included) learned the basics without such sites, without books or classes. They learned by reading other people’s work and, most importantly, by writing, and writing, and writing some more.

One of my favorite songs at the moment is by a band called The Lonely Forest. It’s a wry, slightly self-parodic but still heartfelt call to life and love and it hinges on a simple idea: Turn off the song, it says, you can listen to it later. Turn off the song, find someone to love, and go outside.

My point is simple.

Don’t worry so much about craft, about getting published, about weighing plotting against pantsing. Focus on the important thing, which is the writing itself.

So turn off the advice. You can listen to it later. Magical Words and similar sites (and books and classes) will be here when you get back. Go write something.

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20 comments to Taking a break from writerly advice

  • I would comment, but I am not here right now…

    Thanks, AJ. This is what I needed to see. Have a great weekend everyone! 😉

  • TwilightHero

    *laughing incredulously*

    Wow. This is exactly why I’ve been less active here recently – I realized I was spending more time reading and commenting on writing than actually writing. So as someone who’s done it, I wholeheartedly agree: the writing comes first. Theory is meaningless if you don’t put it into practice. Great post, AJ.

    I’m still keeping the site bookmarked though. The theory IS useful. Later days, everybody :)

  • What Raven said, and also: I keep coming back because I love the community and I enjoy stuyding the theory. But yeah … I’ll get back to work now. :)

  • Raven,
    perfect. Enjoy.

    Twilight,
    glad to hear you’re not cutting out on us entirely! But yeah, your writing comes first.

    Laura,
    me too. MW is all about the community. I’ll come back for that all the time.

  • AJ. I have hidden from writing all week, site-jumping, shopping online, reading about writing, thinking about the rewrite on my desk. Telling myself I am gearing up for it, letting the editor’s comments settle in my mind. Hiding from it is what I’ve really been doing. And you are right, that some of our readers likely hide from writing too, spending time on blogs and advice sites like MW. BIC. Back to my work, Faith. Thanks!

  • This is the trap that I fell into for a while. I would read all the “writing” websites but then have no energy for my own writing. I came to realize that at some point, you have to turn everyone off and just write – using that new found knowledge. Un-utilized knoweldge is knowledge wasted.

    Great post, AJ!

  • Ive been trying to come up with something snarky to say, but the fact is I can’t think of anything. I agree with you entirely, and made a similar point with respect to books on writing last fall. No one can teach us to write, and at some point we have to let go of the advice books and sites, and dive in, trusting in our own creative instincts. So I have work to do, and I’m going to do it. Thanks for this, A.J.

  • Thanks guys. Faith, I’ve been doing the same, mulling and pulling my hair out instead of getting the bit between my teeth and pounding out the words I need to complete the outline I’ve been working on. I’m delighted to say I just sent it off and got the thumbs up from my editor. Now to write the book…

    Mark,
    words to live by.

    David,
    and I was so looking forward to the snark :) Thanks, man. And listent to the song. It’s very cool.

  • Deb S

    AJ, thanks for the advice and the song. Love them both.

  • Megan B.

    Good advice! And David, I’d love to see a post (from you, or anyone) about trusting one’s instincts.

  • I’m going to forgo the going outside bit of the advice (there’s pollen out there), but I will absolutely be doing the rest of it. Final Revision, here I come!

  • Well said, AJ. When I first became serious about writing, I was involved with the SC Writer’s Workshop. It’s a marvelous organization that puts on an awesome conference every fall, and sponsors critique groups all across the state. Heck, I’d never have met Faith without the SCWW. After a while, I was elected to serve on the governing board. It was a lovely honor, and I worked hard at designing newsletters and planning the conferences, until I realised that I’d been so busy working and planning that I’d stopped writing. Yikes!

  • Thanks all. Glad this hit the spot for some of you. And yes, Misty, that’s a familiar dilemma. With me right now I feel that school visits are starting to drain my writing time in a similar way… But I’ll survive.

  • sagablessed

    Totally awesome. I cannot say more.

  • I love that! I must also say that without this site I was like a fish in a boat on the sea, not knowing I could thrive in the rocky waters below me. I do write my own way, then i’ll read a post on here about outlining, building worlds, the antihero and I think, “oh, thats what I was trying to do.”

  • THanks, Saga.

    Latedra,
    that’s very good to hear. Delighted to hear you find the site helpful. Thanks for letting us know.

  • Eh, late to the blog. I really like this one, even though it is counter-intuitive to both this blog and most writers’ thinking in general. It’s easy to be constantly “on the hunt for more learnin'” and forget to sit down and actually write ;).

    The other part of that is social media od’ing. I have a blog (twice a week), am on a group blog (twice a month), and use FB, Twitter, and now Triberr. Listen for it- my head will explode very soon now.

    I think in both cases (seeking writerly advice and social media’ing) the underlying cause is one of control. I can control my social media exposure as well as finding more wonderful sites to learn from (like this one ;)). I can’t control agents and/or editors rejecting me.

    BUT- after this long response, I am no going to go WRITE!

    Thanks for a great post!

  • LOL!!! Ok, no, that was a typo, not a Freudian slip….

    “I am NOW (not ‘no’) going to write!”

  • Marie,
    totally agree about social media etc. I have to ration myself, and these days I think of FB and the like as primarily something I do for fun and to stay in touch with my my friends, not simply a way of marketing my work. It’s healthier that way for me, and much more interesting.

  • Razziecat

    I needed to read this…which sounds ironic considering the subject matter, but I JUST got back online after a week with no internet at my house. I couldn’t get online, so I did some writing. And of course, writing should be the priority even when I have internet access. :)