I think most generally bad advice—especially in terms of writing—comes from a place of insecurity on the part of the advisor. I’m talking about stuff that’s usually somewhere in the conversation about what separates a “real writer” from all the posers, advice like “write every day” or “you have to absolutely love the work or you’ll never make it.” Not everyone has the stamina or the luxury or the need to write every day. Some people’s lives force them to work in sprints when they can manufacture the time; others work more naturally in periods of harvest followed by spans allowing their mental soil to lie fallow. Some of us approach the page the same way we approach parties: fun once you’re there, but ugh, I don’t even want to think about getting there. There are grains of truth to these bits of advice—it’s really important to have discipline once you’ve found a routine that works for you, and the external rewards are sometimes sparse and long in coming—but I’ll bet that anyone who tells you that they know the secret to being a “real writer” is really just worried that they’re not one themselves. Spoiler: we’re all worried we’re not real writers.
I also believe that a lot of the good advice for beginners ends up being bad advice for journeymen writers who have been laboring away at their craft for a while. These are the things that are taken as gospel in writer’s groups and workshops, stuff such as “write what you know” and “show don’t tell.” Good advice taken to an extreme can become shackles. One of the main things I learned from Kelly Link when she was my instructor at Clarion West was that writing well is often less about rules that always work and more about being able to choose wisely. If you’ve ever found yourself struggling how to describe someone opening a door because you need to “show” her doing it, you’re probably falling into this trap. Unless her alien DNA has been activated and turned her arms into tentacles or she’s feeling trepidation because there may or may not be a dragon on the other side of that door or she’s hesitating because she knows that if she leaves in the middle of this argument the relationship is really over—if, in short, she just needs to open the damn door to leave the damn room, you can just tell your reader she did it.
Just choose wisely.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten came from a conversation with Jim Grimsley, a dear teacher and one of the three members of my thesis committee when I earned my MFA at UNO. He said, “If you never cut good prose out of your writing, you’re not doing the work of an author.” Now, this could easily be confused and twisted around into some of the “bad advice when it’s taken as a rule,” I mentioned above (in fact it’s really close to the “murder your darlings” cliché), but what he meant was, simply put, the story is more important than the work you put into it. Two of the things my now-agent Seth Fishman asked me to change back when we were doing the revise and resubmit dance were to move the conflict closer to the beginning of the novel and to remove an entire character. At first, I resisted (though I didn’t realize I was doing so at the time) by trying to make the changes he suggested while also changing as little as possible. It wasn’t until I asked myself why I was changing so little that I realized what I was doing. It wasn’t that the changes themselves would take a lot of effort (they were a lot of work, but that wasn’t what I was avoiding), so much as the fact that I’d be losing all that work that I’d already done. Once I realized that I just didn’t want to sacrifice good (okay, adequate) writing on the altar of narrative, I remembered Jim’s words and took my book apart. Once I focused on the story and not the work and freed myself to make the changes I needed to, I signed with my Seth and sold the book to John Joseph Adams Book/HMH *cough* The City of Lost Fortunes coming April 2018. *cough*
The other piece of advice I’d give is that sometimes the lessons you learn become the new thing you have to unlearn. I struggled a bit with starting the next Crescent City book because the opening, no matter how I tinkered with it, didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it felt so awkward and rushed until I tried to explain to a friend why I was struggling. “I have to get to the conflict as soon as possible,” I said, remembering the hurdle I’d struggled so much to clear with my previous book. As soon as I said the words “have to,” I realized where I was going wrong. I’d turned the thing that worked for me once into a rule I always had to follow, and I wasn’t allowing the opening room to breathe. The takeaway here is two-fold. First, find those friends and loved ones who will listen to you ramble about your story problems and frustrations and joys. I imagine for them it’s like letting someone tell you about this really weird dream they had, but if you have people like that in your life, treasure them, because they are invaluable. The second is that learning to write fiction is always a process. The reason no one can just hand you the rules of writing is that what works for you is always changing as you learn and explore and grow. It’s always as simultaneously simple and as challenging as finding what works for you in the work you’re trying to create. And when it doesn’t work anymore?
Then it’s time to shed your skin and discover the new writer you’ve become.
Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He can be found on twitter @bryancamp and at bryancamp.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero.