The Cool Green Vault

Worst Writing Advice Ever

We've all heard them: nuggets of advice on writing from teachers, friends, relatives, and all manner of well-meaning nuckleheads. And some of that advice is pretty darned good. So keep it coming!

But in the meat of the fruit, there are always a few seeds that will make you wince if you bite. Here are my top ten awful nuggets of advice that I've either received myself, or heard passed to others.

10. You have to be born with writing talent. 

9. If you're not inspired on a given day, then don't write. Wait until tomorrow.

8. If you're going to write your opinion, you don't need to do research.

7. A paragraph should be a minimum of five sentences.

6. If you can't write stories, try poetry. It's easier.

5. Write what you know.

4. Never write anything unless you're paid to.

3. Don't copy the style of existing writers. Develop your own style.

2. Get the first draft right.

1. For best results, work from an outline.

What clunkers have you heard?

A Plan To Get Feedback

I recently finished my 5th rewrite of an adult audience novel, but before I send it out to editors or agents, I want to take it up one more notch. I solicited volunteers via Facebook to be test readers who would offer brutally honest feedback. I got 25 volunteers. From these, I selected 7. My crew includes two readers in their 20s, two in their 30s, and three in their 40s-50s.

I had the draft of the book bound by the on-line site Createspace, which ultimately cost only about $5 per copy and made them look just like finished books. Each of my 7 test readers will now be mailed a copy of the book, critique instructions, a permission form for me to use their comments, a pad of Post-it notes, and a Starbucks gift card as a thank-you. I’ll also be thanking them in the finished book’s acknowledgements.

 They have one month to read the book and make comments. They can write right in the book, making the location with a Post-it. They can also write on the Post-its or include additional paperwork with comments. They’ll be looking for errors, inconsistencies, whether the characters seem real, whether the plot is believable, realistic dialogue, ANYTHING. I’ve told them that they should pretend they spent $20 or more for it at Barnes & Noble, and if they’re not satisfied with anything, I want to know about it.

 I’ll be anxious to see what sort of feedback I get in about a month. I’ll be using this to draft a 6th rewrite, and then I’ll begin shopping the manuscript around to agents and editors.

Even though I’ve been writing for many decades, the exercise of writing a full novel always teaches me new things, and I believe each time that I come out of it a better writer. I'll report back when I have learned more from this exercise!

Beating Writer's Block

1. Can't decide how to start your story? Then don't start at the start! You probably know where you want your character to eventually be. So begin where he's hanging from that cliff and write from there. You can always go back later and find your beginning--or you might even discover that starting at the cliff WAS the right beginning!
2. Play 20 questions. Write down 20 questions you would ask someone you had never previously met if you wanted to know his/her life story. Now go back and make up answers to each. there's one rule: You can't take more than five seconds to answer any question. When you're done, you'll have a character outline. And very often, the answers to some of the questions will suggest a possible story arc.
3. Pick thirty random cities from around the world. Write them on scraps of paper and toss them in a bucket. Draw one. Now go to Google Maps and find an actual intersection in that city. Research it so that you know what shops are at that corner, what they're made of, what kind of houses, their condition, whether the road is gravel or concrete, type of trees, type of weather, perhaps even the smell. Now place a person at that corner. What is he/she doing there, and what's going to happen next? Your story has begun.

Get out of the box!

Get out of the box is one of the four core concepts of writing that I encourage my students to focus upon. It's difficult to find your true voice, reach your potential or learn new skills if you simply do what you've always done, which is writing within your comfort zone. Wasn't it John Dewey who said something to this effect: In order for learning to take place, you have to be made uncomfortable.

So:

If you dislike poetry, write a poem.

If you'd never consider writing romantic fiction, write a romance.

If you'd never create a main character who would smoke crack and profess to be an atheist, create a story whose main character is a crack-smoking atheist.

If you think you can't write a children's book, try writing a children's book.

If you've never entered a writing contest, enter one. (www.writersdigest.com has contests around the calender and is a good place to start.)

You get the idea? What we want to do least is sometimes what we need to do MOST in order to grow as writers. Ten years ago, I had carved a comfortable little niche for myself writing sci-fi and horror. Then I tried something completely different: A book written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl who wants to try Irish dance against her father's wishes. I could never have guessed this would spawn eleven books and three serialized novels that have sold thousands of copies in seven countries. Who knows where getting out of the box will take you?

Writing the Novel

Since November in National Novel Writing Month, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about the process. No one formula works for everyone. Tom Robbins writes without an outline, sometimes spending an entire day on a single sentence, with no rewrites afterwards. Others tack up outlines, notecards, character bios, and all sorts of planning tools, knowing precisely where each step of the process will take them and where their protagonist will be when that final sentence is written.

How do I do it? Here's a rough idea, but remember the caveat: No one formula works for everyone.

1. I start with brainstorming, looking for an original concept. Depending upon what sort of book I wish to write, I may consult history books, books about strange phenomena or mythology, Popular Mechanics, geography texts, newspapers, etc.

2. Once I have a core idea, I begin research. I need to learn about the geography and culture of potential locations. I may need to do historical research or learn about the science necessary to write the piece believably.

3. I often do an outline at this point. It will be pretty rough, usually 1-2 sentences for each chapter. The finished outline may be about 15 chapters in length. This is my story skeleton. When I am finished, it may have grown to 30 or more chapters.

4. Next, I often create rough bios for my main characters. Giving them some background helps explain their behaviors once I begin to write. I try to make them distinct individuals with very human desires and flaws.

5. For me, the hardest part of novel writing is nailing that first chapter. Once I set the tone and pace and find a strategy by which to pull the reader into the story, the rest of the book flows smoothly. Sometimes I'll write three or four test chapters to see which one sounds the best.

6. As the novel progresses, I often find the characters taking directions and doing things that I had not intended. I think this is a good thing. Real people often behave in ways that we don't expect. This often makes your writing feel less rehearsed.

7. I consider the outline a fluid document and make changes as necessary. I wrote 95% of my latest novel, The Irish Witch's Tiara, and then completely changed the ending--for the better, I might add.

8. When the first draft is complete, proof and rewrite. Then do it again. And again. And again. Writing is rewriting.

9. It's not a bad idea to share the manuscript with others, particulary writers' groups, prior to publishing or seeking and editor/agent. You can also engage an editorial service to critique your first chapter or two. It costs a little, but it can be worth it.

10. Be patient and don't be afraid to change things as necessary. But keep at it regularly. If you write five pages a week that's 260 pages a year.

The Four Core Concepts

When I began teaching writing courses, I worried that students would emerge from them without a clear sense of having learned anything quantitative. As a result, I cane up with core concepts which I would emphasize every day and refer to as we engaged in writing improvement. The four are:

DJTUSU (Don't Just Tell Us, Show Us)

Use the Big Box of Crayons

Writing Is Rewriting

Get Out of the Box

Virtually everything can be captured beneath one of those four umbrella concepts, and over the long haul, they are designed to make students more reflective writers. Five years from now, any student should still be able to recite the four. Furthermore, if someone says, "What does 'Use the big box of crayons' mean?" the student should be able to say something like: "It means think about word choice and using more colorful and descriptive words where appropriate." And most students will remember this because they will now be unable to look at a piece of their own writing without thinking, "Did I use the big box?" The prize at the bottom of the box is habitual reflection.

Use the Big Box of Crayons

Much writing tends toward nursing home mashed potato blandness not because the authors are dull or unimaginative, but rather because they fail to reflect on their word choices. Most of us are armed with legions of colorful and appropriate word choices, but we leave them in our mind's attic and persist in trotting out the convenient and commonplace because...it's easier. Mind you, words needn't be monstrous in size nor exotic in origin to infuse one's prose with a tad more octane. What it requires is 1) reflecting on what has been written; 2) making more vivid, colorful and appropriate word choices; and 3) THEN publishing.

For instance, the preceding paragraph is an example. Here are some words that almost everyone knows, but which we often fail to use due to our lack of reflection: tends, blandness, reflect, armed, legions, persist, commonplace, monstrous, exotic, origin, infuse, prose, tad, octane. 

Much writing that I see looks more like this version of the same paragraph:

A lot of writing is boring. It's not because the authors are dumb, but because they don't think about the words they use. Most of us know lots of cool words, but we don't use them because it's easier not to think about it. Words don't have to be big and complicated to make one's writing more exciting. What it requires is 1) thinking about what has been written; 2) making better word choices; and 3) THEN publishing.

Now one could argue that both say essentially the same thing; yet, what makes writing memorable for a reader is when he or she encounters something unusual: A word or phrase that really pops! A unique voice! The second example holds nothing memorable. When we write in a way that shakes our reader to attention, we begin moving away from pedestrian prose and toward higher ground.

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jaia | Reply 04.08.2015 17.44

Hi mr rod vick,
Thanks so much for the books and the free book i finished them all, and they were all so good. THANK YOU
jaia

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Latest comments

07.06 | 21:36

This is my first twitter sign up. I am sure I will be wowed by your intellect. Twitter away.

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04.08 | 17:44

Hi mr rod vick,
Thanks so much for the books and the free book i finished them all, and they were all so good. THANK YOU
jaia

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14.10 | 21:58

You my friend, are blessed! You have put such a positive spin on what could have been a terrible tale. You must have good work yet to do in this world.

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09.10 | 11:00

Other than moving to Muk-town, how can I get you to be my son's teacher?

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