In August, author Guy Gavriel Kay made a tweet that attracted quite a bit of response from the Twitterverse. He wrote:  “My Saturday morning writer’s advice for writers: try not to get hung up on writers’ advice for writers.” Guy Gavriel Kay will be speaking at the Writers’ Community of Durham Region’s next RoundTable meeting, on November 9th 2013, and the advice behind his tweet is something he plans to touch on.

I have to admit, when I first read this, I gasped. I like rules. I like what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos. I know we’re writers and the act of storytelling is a creative process. I totally understand the concept of experimenting with your art, of finding your voice and style by doing what works for you. But I also think there’s a lot of “crap” out there that can be attributed to writers not studying their craft, not learning from the more experienced, not bothering to pay attention to the details—not learning more words, better words. As soon as I decided to write, I started to study. I study writing as much as I actually write. I never believed myself to be some kind of writing prodigy who can put fingers to keyboard and birth amazing prose, and so I write, and I study, and I listen to what other writers have to say and I put it in practice.

Guy_Gavriel_Kay-222x300So, Guy Gavriel Kay’s advice didn’t work for me. Until I found a blog in which he addressed the tweet and expanded on what he meant.

He said: “A writer I know asserted earlier this summer online: never rewrite until you have the whole story finished, then you can go back. I’d never have written a novel if I tried to work that way.”

Yes! How many writers are adamant that “powering through the first draft” is The Way to write a novel? I don’t write that way, either. I tried listening to that “rule” and putting it into practice. It led me to an 80,000-word manuscript that I scrapped in its entirety. I rewrite constantly; I go back and add things as I think of them, then I make subsequent changes. This, I found out, works for some, but I’m conscious that it might not for others.

The more I read Guy’s blog, the more I realized what he’s saying is absolutely right. He takes a different approach, which is to “report” something that’s worked for him, as opposed to “suggesting a process to other writers.” Guy Gavriel Kay’s point is to pick and choose from what’s reported and find out what works. Just think of the “Plotters vs. Pantsers” thing: How many writing texts advise writers to create detailed outlines to their stories? I have six on my shelf right now, yet creating rigid, detailed outlines doesn’t work for me. Flying by the seat of my pants doesn’t either. I’m a hybrid, as I’m sure many people are, yet I spent quite a bit of time trying to “train” myself to be a Plotter because I thought that was the “right” way to do things.

The thing about writing with the intent to publish is that you’re going to find yourself having to listen to other people and do things according to other people that you might not agree with. You’re going to grow as a writer, but in the beginning, you won’t have the experience to look at your work objectively so you will have to trust more experienced writers’ opinions. As you become a better writer, you become a more confident writer. So, you owe it to yourself to listen to the advice that’s out there, because that’s how you’ll experiment and learn more about yourself as a writer. But you also owe it to yourself to throw away what doesn’t feel right and go with what does.

There’s a lot of writing advice out there—showing vs. telling, “ly” adverbs = lazy writing—and I think a lot of it is legit and deserves consideration, but it’s not all black and white. If you don’t experiment and understand what you’re doing and why, you might not be able to interpret the advice and become trapped by these rules.

What are your thoughts on advice to writers from writers?

**Don’t forget, Guy Gavriel Kay will be speaking at theWCDR’s November RoundTable meeting. Register early!


8 Responses to Advice to Writers from Writers: to Take or Not to Take

  • Dale Long says:

    I think he is exactly right. I agree 100% (because 110% is impossible).

    Yes there are writers out there whose heads are filled with their own gradiose-ness, but for every writer that flocks to writing rules, like seagulls to picnics, there is a writer sitting quietly in the dark. They are letting these rules sift over them, accumulating the bits that work for them and discarding the rest.

    If writing, or any art form for that matter, was as simple as just following a cookie cutter method, everyone would do it.

    In any art form, the work is as individual as the artist creating it. I think that is what Guy is trying to get at. Be unique. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, get messy. Sometimes those mistakes lead to something amazing and different. And making mistakes is the greatest learning tool there is.

    I figured out why J. K. Rowling got rejected so many times; she refused to write for the market. She bucked the trend and persevered.

    So while rules make work for one writer, we shouldn’t assume they work for every writer. Aside from the basic rules of grammer and spelling, that is, but even those can be bent at times.

    Hi, my name is Dale Long and I am a rule bending panster.

  • Sally Moore says:

    To Rule or Not to Rule….the plot of every good Historical Fiction Novel, and words to live by as a writer! This discussion is well presented, and it brings all kinds of issues to mind about the experience of being a writer. I wrote in a journal once, during a particularly stressful confusing time in my writing, that ‘to be a writer is to be ever told that you are not good enough’. I’ve heard the sentiment echoed by other writers and writing instructors, too, who believe that encouragement is as important as constructive criticism in the examination of a writer’s work. Who can survive such an onslaught of comment on their work? Does a plumber hear, ‘we have no use for bathrooms this year, bathrooms are played’? Do yoga instructors hear, ‘your downward dog structure is sloppy’? Does a graphic designer hear, ‘We didn’t quite believe that guy was eating french fries’? Well, maybe in some form they do, but in fact the profession of writer has some very tough critics, some professional, some amateur readers, and some other frustrated writers. It’s up to us as good writers to assess what we hear impartially to see if we can use it, and store the rest away in case it comes back to haunt us and we can eventually use it to write a ghost story! But above all, let it challenge us, either to be better writers, or to show ‘them’ that we already are.

  • Dale Long says:

    Where is the like button, so I can ‘Like” Sally’s post.

  • Ann Dulhanty says:

    I like all the above comments, but I also like to say ‘but’. I think its important to not follow every piece of advice out there (especially since some of it directly conflicts with other parts of it) but perhaps most important to understand the ‘why’ behind the advice.

    Why outline the plot? – to avoid creating something that can’t be made logically consistent. Why keep writing until you finish the first draft? – to avoid getting stuck in over-editing and never completing the story. So choosing which approach you take might help you overcome your weakness.

    Me, I tend to write the first 25,000 words by the seat of my pants and then realize if I don’t stop and outline the plot, develop the characters and fully create the world, the story won’t make sense.

  • Cryssa says:

    So where is the ‘like’ button so I can “like” Ann’s post? Actually, I would “like” all your posts because I agree with everyone. To be a writer is to be creative, which means it’s scary and risky and the chance of failure is huge! Perhaps this is why people cling to writing rules, to build a safety net. I prefer ‘principles’ which are guidelines with the ‘why’ attached to them.

  • MEGirard says:

    Guys, what a great discussion. I have nothing to say to any of the comments except “YES!” I love all of your thoughts and perspectives.

    I know I get caught up in rules and advice, which isn’t always good, but I know that it’s served me well at the same time because I have not been a writer for very long yet I’m at a place that I’d never expected to be at this early in my career. But, like Anne brought up, I really try to understand the “why” behind the advice.

    So, while I deleted almost all “ly” adverbs from my work early on at the advice of other writers, it’s later on that I understood why this piece of advice is floating around, and now I can articulate exactly what the idea is behind it and why I believe it’s a true piece of writing advice.

    Thanks for stopping by, everyone! :)

  • Mel Cober says:

    The number one rule of writing: Rules are NOT carved in stone. What may work for some, may not for others. Sure, I take in advice from other writers and use what I can, but in the end it’s MY work, and if it isn’t feeling right to me, the story just won’t work.
    Plotting? Sure I do- in my head- somewhat. I’m more of a pantser, but sometimes I plot a bit too. Some people spend days and days writing pages and pages of plot lines, and to me that’s a waste of time when I just want to get the story on the paper. But it works wonders for others.
    Take the advice that works for YOU, and discard or file away the rest for another project.
    And M-E- I’m still working on my “ly” verbs- truly :-)

  • MEGirard says:

    I think I’m going to dedicate a RAW blog on the topic of “ly” adverbs. :P Thanks for reading!

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