It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as someone starts to write, their friends, acquaintances, and the entire internet will soak them in a deluge of really bad advice. New writers are especially vulnerable, they’re hungry for anything that could help them improve their craft even if that thing will harm rather then help.
Bad writing advice is more than just uninformed opinion. It drains away a new writer’s morale, stifles creativity and probably leads to a world-ending zombie apocalypse. Okay, maybe not that last one. But close.
In this two-volume post, I’d like to take on some pieces of bad advice I’ve come across. Ideas that seem pretty reasonable at first glance but are likely to perform a prefrontal lobotomy on your sorry writer’s ass.
Bad Advice #1: Write every day.
Oh man. I wonder how many people have vowed never to write again because of this old chestnut. It’s the kind of blanket prescription that’s on par with saying that you can only pass that exam / finish your thesis / complete the project by working on it every single day. Every. Single. Day.
And yet, millions of people, every single day, pass exams, finish dissertations, and probably build bridges by leaving everything to the last damn minute. Sure, they shave off several years of their life expectancy in sheer panic and caffeine-fueled all-nighters, but things get done.
So why is writing any different? It’s not.
Some people can write every day. I salute them. But to be fair, only some of those folks will go on to publish anything worth reading. And in the ranks of the already published, I promise you there are people who do not, in fact, write every day.
So what’s going on here?
People who get published are good at finishing the fucking story. They are skilled at creating unconscious patterns of creativity inside their own minds through consistency. They don’t necessarily write every day, but they do write consistently.
So a better version of “write every day,” is: “Create consistent patterns of writing inside your chaotic, ever-crumbling life’s schedule and try stick to these, dummy.” Only have four hours per week spread across five days to write? Then make those four consistent hours, five consistent days.
Bad Advice #2: Do a detailed character biography.
I’ve come across this advice in several writing groups and even some pretty decent writing courses.
You know this one. The notion that you can only build a fully realized character if you write down every tiny little detail about them. Do a full psychological bio. Write down what they like listening to when they’re stuck in traffic. The name of their second grade teacher. The internal layout of the house they grew up in. That sort of thing.
If you think this is a good piece of advice, let me ask you a few important questions. Are you, by any chance, a professional psychological profiler? Do you make a living out of predicting other people’s behavior? No? Because even the pros (and I used to be one) are a bit lost when it comes to constructing a proper psychological profile on a person.
Also, do you think potential readers of your fiction care about what your main protagonist had for breakfast? Or which tune they were humming in the shower that morning? I didn’t think so.
Writing reams of character backstory and constructing elaborate personality profiles of every walk-on in your novel is also known by another name. Writers like Steven Pressfield call it “Resistance.” It’s that old foe that lies in wait, whispering sweet nothings while you whittle away your time on all sorts of junk. Like deciding on just the right writing playlist. You know, important stuff like that.
Doing detailed character bios avoids the rather more important task of telling the story your characters are a part of.
Here’s the rub. Characters are only meaningful inside of stories.
Action defines character. Your potential readers are interested in how your characters operate in the world, how they influence their surroundings. Ever wonder why you encounter so few scenes detailing the protagonist’s toilet habits in published fiction? It’s because readers don’t care. It’s because there are more interesting things to say about your characters than the boring minutiae of their everyday lives.
Elmore Leonard famously said that his writing is so effective because he “leaves out the boring parts.” Doing full character biographies is a celebration of the boring parts.
But hang on, you say. Maybe a full grocery list of my protagonist’s personality traits is still useful, providing it stays in the background. Providing it never reaches the page that the reader is holding. That’s okay, surely?
To that I say, perhaps you’re underestimating the temptation of injecting those boring bits into the story. You spent time on them, after all. The readers will understand, surely?
No, they won’t.
So what’s the alternative?
Compelling characters live inside the writer’s mind. They’re like little persistent brain-worms. Sexy, compelling, disturbing little brain-worms. You can bet they won’t go away easy.
So instead of writing down boring details about your characters, write them into scenes. Have your heroes and villains act rather than navel-gaze. Have them speak to other characters and show their desires—don’t write down a bore-me-to-death list of their motivations. Put them in the story and let them run around, breaking stuff. That’s the way to understand character. Not through some bogus personality profile, but through action.
Let your characters live.
See you next time. Happy writing.
Image: Megaphone photo by Leo Reynolds (CC BY-NC 2.0).