In classes and on blogs, I have read advice on writing–how to write, what to write, when to write, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell you that you have to write short stories as a young writer because no one will read a 400 page draft of your novel if you don’t have some sort of previous experience/publication as a reference. Others will tell you that you absolutely cannot write “genre” fiction if you want to be taken seriously. There is good advice and bad–much of it specific to the writer. I do believe there is truth in learning the rules before you choose to break them…but break them you probably will.
The Advice: Write What You Know
One of my favorite authors of ALL TIME told me this when I had the opportunity to attend a lecture he gave. At first I took his words as gospel because, come on, I was fan-girling that I was even in the same room. But then, I started to consider what he said, perhaps not the way he intended it, and I was disheartened. What did I, a young, female college student from a happy, secure childhood know about anything? I let this advice fester for a long time, bothered by the implications. If I could only write what I know then I might as well give up. No one wants to hear the day-to-day complaints of someone who has the kind of life many people lust after.
Finally I began to ask myself some things: Is it limiting to write what you know? Is that even a real thing? I write male characters, but I am female. I write fantasy and those places certainly don’t exist. I write love but I have never been in it. I write heartbreak when I have never felt it. I write loss when I have barely experienced it. I write murder but have never committed it.
If we only wrote what we knew, the literary world would be filled with the mundane, the 8-5, the unrelenting normalcy in which we live. There would be no tales of dragons or far off space or the Nicholas Sparks brand of love. Maybe as writers, it is our job to delve into the unknown and bring a piece of it back to those that cannot go there themselves.
The Advice: Outline
I have had numerous professors/fellow writers/people who would not know writing if it punched them in the nether regions tell me that outlining is the only way to go. To them I say, “Not for me, thanks.” Maybe it’s an inherent dislike of being told what to do–especially when concerning my writing–or maybe that technique simply doesn’t work for me. It makes writing feel too much like an assignment and gives it a rigidity that I believe is the nemesis of creativity and inspiration. Once my story starts going, I may jot down a loose list of who will go where and do what, but inevitably that list is filled with gaps and vague descriptions such as : “A and B go here to do…something. A battle ensues.” Hardly a concise and developed plan of the story. But that’s just the way my mind works. I have my major scenes in mind and the rest fills itself in as I go. If outlining works for you, carry on. If not, don’t feel compelled to do it because someone said that was the only right way.
The Advice: Write Something Other Than Fantasy
This is more of a past tense rejection (I have since been forced to follow this advice). Interestingly enough, my first forays into writing were very much set in the real world with realistic, every day characters and problems. But fantasy (reading and writing) has always been my first love and I don’t anticipate that changing soon. However, since fantasy on my part tends toward the epic, I was forced to write out of my comfort zone (which is advice every writer should take) for classes. I ended up with material that got me into graduate school, and that was well received by my classmates–proving to your very reluctant narrator that I can and should write non-fantasy fiction. This advice is specific to me, but, if someone ever tells you to stop writing what you love, I give you permission to spit on them and walk away. Or just walk away, whatever. It’s true that you should try other styles and genres and settings, if only to find out where your weaknesses and strengths lie. Perhaps you are excellent at descriptions but your dialogue is lacking–switching genres can give you a chance to experiment with things that did not fit in the situation in which you originally placed them.
In other words, take each piece of advice someone gives you with a grain of salt and a good deal of thought. It could be that you need to take their advice to heart and it could be that you need to decide to take bits of it or ignore it altogether. In the end, it’s your writing, for better or for worse, for published or for unpublished, in agony and in ecstasy, for as long as you both shall live.
Unrelated to writing: Don’t eat that, don’t drink that, don’t touch that, don’t text him back, and don’t you think you’ve had enough?
But I’ll let you make your own mistakes in your real life.