Last time, I wrote about that old writing adage – ‘never give up’ – and how I gradually realised it was OK to ignore it sometimes. And when I started thinking about it, I realised there were actually quite a few other bits of advice that fall into the same category – tips that popped up everywhere, but when I got down to putting them into practice, I started to think maybe they weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
To be clear here, I’m not saying that the advice I’m going to cover is never helpful. I’m sure there are lots of people who’ll read this who’d swear by some – or all – of these tips. My point is, when you’re new (like I am), if you read the same advice more than a few times, you start to think maybe you’re doing something wrong if you doubt them. It can be reassuring to find out that they didn’t work for everyone and you’re not going mad.
So, these are the tips I’m talking about – and how I’d modify them to make them more useful.
1. The advice said: Write for an hour a day/Set aside your writing time/Write at the same time each day.
I wonder where this preoccupation with time comes from. I think maybe it’s the world of full-time employment where being seen to be at your desk from 9 till 5.30 is the main indication of productivity. But when you’re paid and judged on the words on the page, I think the time it took to get them there isn’t really relevant.
I can see how setting aside an hour (or whatever) a day is a good way to help you build a routine, but the problem is, lots of things can happen (or not happen) in an hour. You might storm it and write two thousand spellbinding words, but you might spend 45 minutes refreshing Twitter and 15 minutes scouring lists of Japanese baby names for the perfect name for a character who appears in one paragraph on page 86.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well into goals and getting on with things, but I think this kind of advice would be more helpful if it was focused more around output than hours.
So, I’d say: Set a weekly word count goal.
2. The advice said: Cut, cut, cut. Cut everything. Your second draft should be at least twenty percent shorter than your first.
No one wants to waffle on too much and bore people, so this used to worry me. When I’d finished writing something, I’d duly go through and cut anything that could be considered redundant – adjectives, dialogue, observations. The only thing was, it turned out that I have the opposite problem: I am an ‘under-writer'. I don’t explain things enough. I can be terse.
I’m not saying everything I write is beautiful and people only ever ask for more – of course there were some bits that were crap and had to be ditched – but when I started working with people who know (agents and editors), most of the comments I got were about elaborating on ideas, developing dialogue and clearing up ambiguity - all just as important as cutting out the waffle.
My book (Birdy) was 3000 words longer post-edit than it had been when I submitted it.
So, I’d say: Cut the bad stuff, but also make sure the good stuff is on the page, not just in your head.
3. The advice said: Write the book you want to write.
I’ve swayed between both extremes with this one. I tried to write book that I had almost no interest in based on what I thought would be easiest to sell. It didn’t work.
I also tried following the advice to the letter and started work on a book that I thought would be fun to write. In my case, I started something in the form of instant messages and emails. In truth, it was basically me venting my pet peeves about other people’s online habits. I amused myself writing about ten pages – it was quite cathartic – but I quickly realised this wasn’t a book for readers.
I suppose it’s about balance. You have to enjoy it enough to have the passion to get to the end, but ultimately, it needs to be something other people want to read or you might as well be keeping a diary.
So, I’d say: Write the book you'd want to read.
4. The advice said: Have lots of beta readers.
Like all the others items in this post, this advice totally makes sense in theory. It’s impossible to properly critique something you’ve written yourself, so getting other people to take a look is the obvious thing to do. But I think it is possible to take this tip to heart and get it wrong.
When I was about two thirds of my way down my road to getting published, I decided that I could no longer be trusted to know good from bad and that I would put myself in the hands of some readers – all carefully chosen, either for their industry expertise or just because I thought they’d know a good story when they saw it (or didn’t see it as the case may be).
They were all great. They all sent me careful, insightful comments and suggestions. My problem was, I tried to take them all into account. Lots of them were different – completely opposing in some cases – but I decided to try to work it all in, even when I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on the idea. Of course, this meant I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on the end result. And neither was anyone else.
I think two handy rules of thumb are:
- If lots of people you trust say the same thing, they’re probably right.
- If people pick up on something you already sort of suspected yourself, they’re probably right.
But not every person who reads a book and makes a comment will be right or sensible or helpful. And anyway, for all we know they might just be saying anything at all just to make us shut up and stop bothering them with our amateurish nonsense.
(As a side note, the most successful of my writing efforts – the one that’s going to be published – didn’t have any readers at all. The only people who’ve read it as far as I know are my agent and my publisher. It’s exactly as I wanted it to be. So if it’s a huge flop I’ll have no one to blame but myself. And them.)
So, I’d say: Follow advice you believe in but don’t let too many cooks spoil the story.