Writing advice from the absurd to the profound

One of my favorite pastimes on the Internet is reading writing advice, even when it’s bad.

Take “The Worst Muse,” for example: a Twitter account that spits out intentionally terrible (and therefore hilarious) writing advice:

Sometimes it’s merely funny, a good way to pass a few minutes on Twitter, but occasionally, it’s a biting reminder of the traps we all too easily fall into:

(I have totally used that shortcut — though I turn to experts or native-speaking friends in revision.)

(Something anyone who sets a story in the South is always wrestling with.)

This last one reminds me of a great interview between Edward Stafford and Hemingway:

My wife needled him. “Is it true,” she asked, “that you take a pitcher of martinis up into the tower every morning when you go up to write?”

“Jeezus Christ!” Papa was incredulous. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes, and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he had his first one. Besides,” he added, “who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time, anyway?”

Of course, taking a break for a drink — or any kind of breather — in the middle of writing isn’t always a bad idea. Or so Gayle Towell writes in her quick “Ten Second Writing Tip” for Blue Skirt Productions:

The best way to handle a scene that has you stumped is NOT to sit and beat your head against it until it comes out right. [. . .] The key is to trust that the scene will come to you when it’s ready.

It’s all about patience, gang. You can’t rush good writing.

But for all my insistence on patience and aversion to strict routines, I do love a plan to get a writing project started. And I do need to get started — all summer, I’ve been trying to get going on my next novel, and while I work on it from time to time, other projects keep stepping in and taking over my writing time. Which is why I enjoyed the Terrible Minds post about “How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel.”

The Big 350

For me, a lot of this routine plays on one of my biggest pet peeves: the idea that writing is just putting words on paper. I’ve had many people, several of them friends, tell me, “Writing is easy. You just put a few words on the page every day and before you know it, you have a novel!”

Actually, no, you don’t. What you have is a very, very shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott puts it.

But that’s the point. It doesn’t matter how hard you work at it or how long you mull it over or how much you tinker as you go — in the end, your first draft is always going to be your first draft. The trick isn’t in writing a good first draft, it’s in writing a draft at all.

And this routine is an excellent way to get shit on the page. And I like the no-nonsense way it expresses that. As much as it rankles me when non-writers talk about writing as though it were easy, I do love when writers remind me that, actually, this is the work, and it’s not that hard to put the work in.

And then there’s my favorite advice article from the past week, Kevin Meyer’s “Ten Rules for Writing Dialogue.” At its heart, the article isn’t really about dialogue so much as it’s about that grueling work of editing in general:

If you want to be a successful writer, you can’t let little things slide. Most people who have been writing for a while have good instincts. A writer knows when she’s written something a little ham-fisted or lazy, but recognizing those places isn’t the hard part. Coming back to it to fix it, to take that opportunity and hammer it into something unique, that’s what’s difficult.

The list he comes up with isn’t ground-breaking in the sense that none of us has ever encountered these rules before. In fact, a lot of them feel like common sense. As Meyer writes, “Most people who have been writing for a while have good instincts.” But they’re excellent reminders, and, best of all, Meyer illuminates them through clear, direct explanations and some killer examples from his own work.

I’m going to list his rules here as a reminder to myself, but don’t just glance over these and think you’ve got it — go check out his article and see how he breaks these rules down. It’s great advice.

  1. Characters drive the conversation toward what they want
  2. Characters never respond to a yes or no question with yes or no
  3. Characters misspeak frequently
  4. Characters misunderstand each other frequently
  5. Characters never repeat themselves verbatim
  6. Characters never answer the phone on the page
  7. All arguments can be summed up in two words: Fuck you
  8. Dialogue should never reveal plot, only character
  9. Cut every single line of dialogue possible without losing the reader
  10. Break any one of these rules if it reveals character or builds tension

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

One thought on “Writing advice from the absurd to the profound

  1. “… very shitty first draft…” if that! LOL

    Actually, what really rocks is to follow The Worst Writer’s ‘rules’ and STILL write something good. It can be done. I never forget that Emily Brontë wrote out the dialect used by the character Joseph in quasi-phonetic form in ‘Wuthering Heights’. The practice is known by the literary term ‘eye-dialect’. It’s a recognised practice with a long track record.

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