Top 10 Bad Advice for Fiction Writing

I’m not an expert on fiction writing, heck, my dreams of seeing my book in bookshops are yet to be realised, but I have learned some interesting things whilst honing my craft and I would like to share them with you, dear blog reader.

There will always be those ready and willing to impart their knowledge, but not everyone will have the same unbiased view-point when spilling the goods. You may hear a very solid piece of advice but you should consider where that advice is coming from, not just the advice itself.

If someone tells you not to do something, chances are they’ve been burned by that very thing, but that doesn’t mean you will get caught in the same fire!

These bits of advice are wrong. Myths. Delusions weaved by disgruntled or unenlightened folk who have not yet had that lucky break. To anyone who tells you not to dream I say “kaphooew” or “bleeeergh” and insist your follow your dream with gusto and passion and all manner of positive energy!

#1 Write what you know.

How did that work out for Tolkien? Or Shakespeare? Or [insert your favourite weaver of imaginative worlds here]? I’m glad they didn’t listen to that nugget of wisdom. Did they have someone wander up to them, peer over their shoulder and shake their head? Hmm, that’s garbage that is, dragons and fairies and witches and stuff? Poppycock. You should write about your local town/people/bunny rabbits/scarecrow/grass/shack/dull scenery/back of your hand. That’s what you know, so stick to it!

Kaphooew! Humans are blessed with imagination so why not use it? Write what you know if you want, but considering the scope of what we know doesn’t that reduce out horizons to a teeny tiny thing the size of a wasps kidney? Okay, so there are some who are lucky enough to have travelled the world, or seen many things and experienced more than the average Joe Normal, but even they used their imagination at some point.

Let your mind soar to the dizzying heights it craves, let your imagination weave worlds of wonder and breathe life into characters you want to spend a lot in their company. Let’s face it, what you know about Mr Postman or Mrs Bread Baker is probably not enough to flesh out even a small story without inventing something interesting, and that is where our imagination steps in. Hey, Mr Postman is boring, let’s give him a unicorn to ride around on, and instead of this neighbourhood let’s pick him up and drop in a world populated by gnomes!

Now you’re talking!

#2 You can’t learn writing from books!

Plenty of old timers were writing before there were books that told you how to write, and therefore they insist that being a writer is who you are not what you learn. We didn’t learn these new fangled ways of writing, we marched down those word mines every day, with a sack of pencils on our backs and a grimace on our face. Learning to write indeed! Poppycock. We didn’t do that so why should you?

Again, kaphoeew to that, old timers! You can learn plenty from books on the craft of writing. I read On writing by Stephen King, amazing book, not so much about the technicalities of writing but the core issues and values. You can buy up entire shelves of “How to Write a Best Seller” stuff and you’ll find both good advice and bad. The point is that even the worst books will have something that prompts you to evaluate how you write, to look at different ways to approach writing.

If this piece of advice were true then plumbers, bakers, mechanics, engineers, doctors and so on would be shooting in the dark. Hey, I tried my best and just did what came naturally to me, I got a lot of talent you see, but in the end your husband’s heart just stopped beating on the operating table, yeah real bummer. If only there was some way to learn how to do this better, I reckon he would have lived.

I have a great book on my shelf called My Grammar and I and it’s packed with cool stuff I’d forgotten since school. I use it almost every day. Books on writing can show you were to improve, how to organise your writing habit and all manner of fabulous stuff. Don’t be put off buying them because you might fear it reduces your talent. So what if you have an Idiot’s Guide to Writing on your bookshelf? Doesn’t make you any less of a writer, in fact it should mean the opposite, that kind of book serves to build up your knowledge base.

#3 Plan your book – Details & Research V Just wing it – Dive In & Swim!

Two statements from different perspectives:

A) Ahem, you’re just going to jump in and start writing? No planning or research or plot outlines? Well you may as well just jump out of airplane in the middle of the sea and start swimming. You’re just writing without an aim. Ho-kay then, good luck with that!

B) What’s with all the notes and photo’s and spread sheets and stuff? You’ll spend forever cataloguing your research and never get around to the actual writing, you should just dive right in and see where it takes you, all that planning and detail will only drag you down beneath the waves.

Meh, don’t listen! Whilst planning and structure can be worthwhile for some people and writing projects, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. I’ve recently churned out a bunch of short stories without any planning whatsoever. Check them out if you like, they’ll be under the Writing Challenge sections. I just started tapping away on the keyboard and hey-presto I had a story. You can have a lot of fun by starting with a single character and an idea and seeing what happens.

On the other hand you might have a killer idea for a story but you need to research how helicopters work in a hurricane or if it’s possible to power a blender with an exercise bike. You might want to fill a wall with maps and photos and character sheets before you write a single word. And then you may want to plot out every chapter with key plot twists and wotnot.

There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Whatever works for you. Personally for my longer fiction writing I like to be somewhere in the middle. I’ll start with an idea and go with it for a while until I need to do research for example, but I don’t stop and start, research and writing work side by side. I write down ideas and characters etc but sometimes they never get used.

Do it your way and you’ll find your centre. You have to find the way that suits you.

#4 Not everyone is a writer!

Ah yes, I see what you’ve tried to do but it just doesn’t work. That bit’s wrong and that section there doesn’t make any sense and your characters are awful. Have you ever considered being a bricklayer?

Nonsense! We all have the ability to tell stories. Back in the day when the shepherds watched their flocks by night, what do you think they did? Sat and stared at the grass?

They told stories. Okay, they probably talked about sheep quite a bit, but I doubt even the most passionate sheep herder was able to spend all evening yakkering on about the finer points of sheep herding! And besides, even bricklayers tell stories! Geddit? Groan. Sorry.

You can tell a story. Just look at the scale of the popular blogging trend! It’s huge! All those people telling stories, whether true or fiction it doesn’t matter. They all have a story to tell. You might not have the skills to tell a good story or put it into words that make a reader’s eyes rush across the page, but that is what Point 2 is all about. If you don’t start and don’t try you’ll never know.

Fiction writing is about practice. It’s like riding a b…actually it’s not, it’s like painting or acting, you have to take time to perfect your craft, learn the rules and know when to break them. Michelangelo didn’t pick up a paint brush one day and knock out The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, no sir he didn’t. He started out like the rest of us, with a curious nature and desire to create.

If you want to tell a story then tell it. Learn how to tell it well and enjoy telling it.

#5 Bad reviews mean you suck!

Oh the horror! Someone doesn’t like my latest piece about Hoppy the Happy Hare. I guess I should take everything I’ve ever written and burn it in a fit of rage and tears. Get a grip on yourself! There will always be bad reviews because if everyone liked the same things the world would consist of one colour, grey, everyone would be called Nigel and we’d all drive the same cars, grey ones. The world has been painted with a glorious Technicolor brush and as a result we have different opinions on what hue is best.

Let’s take a look at Michelangelo again. After the last brush stroke and a good massage on his aching back, our Mike stepped back and gazed at his work of art. He was proud of it and rightly so. The janitor strolls in, brush in hand, and takes one look at Mike’s efforts and says: “It’s a big naff innit? I don’t much care for it myself.” And with a righteous sniff he brushes his way out of the chapel.

So what do you reckon happened? Did Mikey paint over it with a bucket of white wash? Did he bollocks! He knew that Jon the Janitor was just giving his opinion and it wasn’t one held by the majority.

All writers receive bad reviews, it’s the nature of the beast, and it’s natural to feel like someone has just crapped all over your hard work. But where there’s one bad apple there will be other shiny ones. But at the same time you shouldn’t stare at those lovely red apples OR the rotten ones either. You are looking for solid constructive criticism that will help you improve and mature as a writer.

Take the rough with the smooth.

#6 Self-Publishing & eBooks are a waste of time!

In the school of “Print to Paper & Put it in a Bookshop” there’s a teacher called Mr I Hate Ebooks and he thinks all books should be published with a hard cover and stuck on shelves in bookshops because that’s the way they did it in his day and it’s worked out pretty darned fine for him, by jolly!

Self-Publishing or Vanity Publishing used to be scoffed at, the idea that someone would pay for their book to be printed was just insane. I doubt if I would ever pay money to see my book in print but I will transform it into an eBook and stick it on Amazon or other eBook website.

The popularity of the eBook has rocketed in the last few years and I’m sure Amazon recently announced its eBooks were outselling traditional books at something like 10-1. If you think about the cost of paying an agent and a publisher takings its cut from your earnings, then look at the relatively cheap methods of publishing your own work via eBook….well, it starts to look more and more attractive.

The drawback is that you, the writer, must be all those things you would have paid an agent or publisher for – marketing, editing, promotional work, booking signings, getting endorsements etc. You have to be all those things and more. But that gives you the freedom to choose how you want to do things.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out an agent or a publisher, by all means approach these avenues when you’re ready but don’t rule out the power of self publishing and social media to showcase your work.

I read an article a few months back about a guy, normal ordinary guy who loved writing. He submitted his work to publishers and got rejected plenty of times, but he kept on writing. Then he decided to give his book away for free so he started a blog and built up a fan base. A year or so later he was approached by a publisher and struck a deal for his next book. He was able to prove he had a loyal fan base and had generated enough interest to make printing his follow-up novel in an actual book!

Don’t forget about the power of social media – seek wisdom from Kirsten Lamb, social media guru.

#7 Beginners should start writing short stories not novels.

Keep it short and sweet to start with, harken to me young padawan! The force may be strong with you but it won’t help you write a 100,000 word novel right off the bat. Use your new power to pen teeny tiny stories no longer than 50 words! Your writing must mature over time like a fine wine or an old dog with saggy jowls .

Bleeergh! Follow that concept through to conclusion and it means you will be the master of short stories in 40 years time. There’s no reason why you can’t go for a full on 8 book epic right from the word go. When I was in high school 13-16 I wrote a book called Wish. It would probably read like childish fantasy gibberish now but hey, I  who can say they did that when they were in school?

Writing short stories can be a good way to hone your writing skills using fewer words. Let’s say you pen a 5,000 word short story, you get some feedback about what’s good and bad and so forth, and because it’s relatively short it is easier to navigate and edit. Short stories also help the writer get to the point, kind of, because in order to keep the reader interested it needs to work quicker to get the story across. You can’t spend 5 pages talking about the weather or a character’s boots for example, well, you could, but it may not make for interesting reading if your story is about robots from the future.

Even now I love writing short pieces. After wading through my novel, with my brain working over time remembering every aspect of the story, it’s like a breath of fresh air to work on something small. If you want to pen a full length novel, go to it and good luck. That’s good luck said sincerely by the way!

#8 Stick to one point of view or perspective.

This is plain silly. I’ve read plenty of awesome books where the point of view switched from first person to third and then diary format and back to first and so on. Read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres and you’ll see you don’t need to stick to one specific format to tell a fantastic story.

From my experience if you want to shift the POV it’s best avoid doing so mid scene. For the reader to follow the story make sure it is obvious the POV has changed. Create a break or new chapter or other method to separate the opposing POV’s and the reader will thank you.

The novel I’ve been working on is written in the first person (I said, I did, I was happy washing my bunny rabbit etc) but there are a few sections written in the third person (she said, he smiled, he washed his bunny rabbit etc) and it works very well. It took some time to make these parts gel together but it looks good and the story flows nicely because of it.

#9 You need a prologue and epilogue to start and finish with.

No and no. Many readers gloss over the prologue the same as they pass on a starter in a restaurant in order to get that steak on the table asap. Prologue’s aren’t necessary. Clive Cussler is a fan of the prologue but I think he gets away with it because many of his novels start with something important in the past in order for the modern-day hero’s to have something to do. Stephen King loves his “Dear Constant Reader…” bits at the front but they’re more of a quirky “hey, constant reader, a word in your ear before you head on in” kind of thing than to do with the story.

On the whole why not make the prologue just Chapter One? Get the reader up to speed without the fancy, ye olde worlde prologue, it’s just delaying the inevitable. And the epilogue is like a cheat. Wrap up your story in the story by ending the story. Don’t let the reader get to the end and then say: “Oh, by the way, this happened after it had all finished…too bad I couldn’t be bothered to actually write about it, but them’s the breaks!”

Prologues are often used as a huge information dump so the writer can get on with the fun of writing, it’s a cop-out to let the writer stick all that information in one place so they don’t spend too much time on it. Woah! What’s with all the information Mr Writer? I’m trying to enjoy the story like the blurb on the jacket said I would, and now you thrust all this information down my throat…bad karma dude, back off. There’s a good place for prologues –  movies. It worked well for Star Wars, and deep voice over man at the start of a serious movie.

#10 Writing is one of the loneliest professions.

Look at the writer, sat at his/her desk, staring at the screen/writing pad, in the gloom of a desk lamp/candle, chewing finger nails/pencil, hour after hour in silence. The writer craves solitude and peace to pen those words. Distraction from noise, music, tv, people is the bane of the writers creation. Poor writer, so lonely, so still and quiet in isolation. Pity the writer for they are utterly alone.

My response: Buuuuullshit! You may be one of those sorts of people but it seems unlikely. We don’t live in the 17th century where the writer used a quill and ink, and any interruption was deemed punishable by public flogging. We have many distractions in our modern world and we should welcome them.

Right now I am writing this in my room, I have Spotify playing the top 100 most listened to tracks, I have emails popping up every few minutes and Tweetdeck telling me @just_bren is talking about hot balls! Firefox is open with 8 tabs across the top and I’m humming away quite nicely!

I periodically seek advice from friends about writing stuff, I take a break and ask the young kiddies: “Do teenagers still do xyz at parties?” for example. Music is a great way to feel your way through a writing session, think of it as a stream of sounds that serves to enhance your scene in the same way backing music brings tension/ humour/terror/anticipation to a scene in a movie.

Okay, so sometimes the silence is there, and sometimes it is welcome, but you know what? It’s not as great as people make out. I like silence when I’m reading, though I can shut my brain off and read whilst the TV is on but it’s not as good. If I shut everything off right now I can still hear the hum of the PC and the fan creaking on the desk nearby.

Besides, you’re never alone when you have a bunch of characters running around your skull and causing untold havoc on the screen. I do wonder if writers have an acceptable level of schizophrenia. You create a character and then climb inside their body to see what makes them tick or how they view their world. That’s not lonely at all! Insane perhaps, but you’re never lonely with a bunch of make-believe pals to chat with.

For a writer there’s no such thing as loneliness.

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About Dave Farmer

Wordsmith & Lifetime member of Imaginationland! Writing is my passion. I've just finished my first novel, The Range - a story of survival, friendship & courage, that will be available on Amazon very soon. Every time I sit down to write I look forward to reaching The Zone, that place where words flow from mind to hand and everything slips into place.

Posted on July 11, 2011, in Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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