Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice

 
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Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice

      by Michael Neff

Without Proper Advice Though, No Publication
OUTSIDE OF EXCESS NARCISSISM, BAD ADVICE IS A WRITER'S WORST ENEMY.

If you ever run or attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulates like a ruinous viral meme through the nervous systems of America's aborning fiction and novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look on your face and ask him, or her, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

Yes, the first question often asked: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT?

Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group. Ahhhh, of course, you think. Why just recently in an Algonkian event, one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both (and at the same time) that using only one point of view to write a novel was mandatory.

No exceptions!

I'm not kidding or exaggerating. I asked, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

She'd learned it from her writer's group. It must therefore be true. No doubt because they had told her this for seven years, and her workshop leader affirmed it, and as further proof the preposterous assertion was correct, a member of her group held an MA from Johns Hopkins! So in the face of this onslaught we displayed the typical dumbfounded reaction, and to our further astonishment, the writer just dug in and continued to resist our many proofs to the absolute contrary. As a matter of fact, one of the novels the writer was supposed to have read before the retreat was HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Of course, she didn't read it, but she did at least admit it contained more than one point of view. Uh oh! Moments later though, to bolster the writer group firewall of defensive ignorance, she said, "Well even F. Scott Fitzgerald screwed up once in Gatsby and shifted to a different point of view... So it just goes to show, anyone can screw up like that and use more than one point of view."

Stunned yet again following this mind-blowing comment, the two of us finally recovered to note several more novels that contained multiple POV, from WUTHERING HEIGHTS to THE POISONWOOD BIBLE to THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES to various thrillers and even to Rowling's later Harry Potter books. We figured that somewhere between Emily and J.K. this extremely stubborn person might actually stop and realize that perhaps her writer group had been steering her wrong. Sadly though, I don't believe she ever learned. Perhaps the bond with the group was too strong and the consensus delusion regarding single POV helped maintain their social cohesion. Perhaps her own narcissism disallowed her? Both? Who knows? I just know that the writer never once admitted she was wrong. No sign of epiphany was ever forthcoming. Instead, she lapsed into borderline hysteria, though recovered the final two days and went to work on another novel. I sent her at least 20 examples of multiple POV following the retreat and received only a very terse note in return. All in all, it was the most singular and remarkable act of writer ignorance I've ever witnessed, but one cannot blame the writer out of hand. Bad advice was one of her worst enemies, if not her worst. If you go to a writer's group respecting the leader and your peers and they tell you XYZ nonsense year after year, how can you not believe it? Nevertheless, we workshop leaders and teachers tire of being the target of theatrical repercussions at such time the narcissist writer discovers the world is not flat and the sun doesn't revolve around them.

On the plus side, the exasperating event above prompted me to finally work towards creating a master list of bad writer advice--something I've wanted to do for years. I searched on Google not only to help with my own recollections but to investigate anything I might have missed, and the first article I came across was in Lit Reactor: "The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear."

Lit Reactor seems to be a decent place for newbie writers seeking community and inspiration, but I have to take a few exceptions with the article above. I firmly agree with a lot of it, for example, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is really bad advice. How could speculative or historical fiction writers ever pen a page if this were true? But the author goes on to choose other literary adages we've all grown old with and claims that they too are actually very bad advice. One of them is SHOW DON'T TELL. So that's one of the worst pieces of writer advice? Huh? Now, let's pull in the reins for a second. As a writer I've never seen SHOW DON'T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to "tell" at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn't sufficient. Like most writers I've known, I see SHOW DON'T TELL as a helpful guideline, especially for newbies who tend to lump pages of exposition in their opening chapter, or otherwise drone on and on about an important event in the story when they should be depicting in a live-action scene.

As in other instances in the Lit Reactor article above, the author isn't necessarily wrong when she counterpoints the age-old literary adage, as I did above, but the difference between us is that she posits SHOW DON'T TELL as an unbreakable rule, and when exceptions are offered up they stand as proof that the adage is actually bad advice. Logic dictates, however, that one can find several conditions to counterpoint the negative examples and then we're even. My point is that the unfortunate act of singling out the SHOW DON'T TELL guideline as bad advice is, in itself, bad advice--my apologies to the author of the article, and she is welcome to debate this here, but seriously, how the heck would you apply the anti-SDT logic to screenplay writers or playwrights when so much more is SHOW DON'T TELL?

Let's recap. We now have three slings of really bad writing advice to list. We'll build the list as we go:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice
Next. At every Algonkian event, I hear a writer state this to me sooner or later: "Writer's shouldn't use flashbacks in their novels." Yes. Another, Where the hell did you hear that? Of course flashbacks are acceptable, if used artfully. They are just one technique in the fiction writing toolkit, and the types of flashbacks vary from a brief memory to a full chapter, or more. Novels that use a framing device of looking back into the past after having first established a contemporary setting (e.g., A Separate Peace or I Claudius) are themselves one immense act of flashback. But like the first example in the beginning of this post, the writer's group can sometimes be at fault for spreading this unproductive advice, but in all fairness, is the writer group the true source? When questioned about origin, the writer spreading the viral meme regarding flashbacks more often than not says, "I heard it at a writer conference." And then I ask, from whom? And they answer, "Uhh, someone, an agent, um... on a panel."

Trauma time! The soul-searing memories return to haunt me. Years ago, I sat on a panel with five other agents at the San Francisco Writer's Conference listening to a new and incredibly ignorant agent drone on and on about the craft of writing (though she wasn't a writer and had never been an editor--in fact, like so many young agents, her only past experience involved reading query letters and wading the slush-pile), and every other utterance from this person's mouth about fiction writing was just plain wrong. I sat biting my tongue as long as I could, and then attempted to qualify and gently negate her assertions, and succeeded to some degree, but despite this calamity, I learned something. Here before me sat over 200 people, writers in their early stages, looking for good advice. And were they getting it? No, a hundred times NO. Past memories began to gel and I realized that the single biggest source of bad advice for writers might well be the typical American writer conference--and of course, these writers return to their hometown groups to repeat what they've heard, e.g., no flashbacks, show don't tell sucks, don't worry about your title...

Don't worry about your title? Back to a writer conference. I attended a panel at another large writer conference on the west coast in 2014. It was a panel of writers who had recently been published. There were about 75 people in the room. A poor neophyte stood and asked the assembled writers if he had to worry about his title before he was published, and the consensus answer from the panel? No. You don't... I sat there dumbfounded. So basically, these people told this guy that pitching his novel or nonfiction with a crappy, foolish, or hackneyed title was perfectly fine. Not to worry! Call it whatever you want. Must I spend any more space telling you why this was not only not perfectly fine, but perfectly stupid and self-defeating? A bad title is like a warning siren going out ahead of your pitch, whether it be an oral pitch or query letter. It makes a horrible whining sound of warning, and it seems to be saying to those who read or listen: This is a terrible writer, stop listening, stop reading, run screaming!

Now, time to add three more to the list:
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title
  • Any writer conference is helpful
Pitching the MFA
Though I don't hear it as much as I used to, I nevertheless hear it from young writers who have been conditioned to falsely believe that they will never write well or be taken seriously as writers unless and until they possess an MFA. My response to this: nothing could be a bigger lie. I'm sorry, I can't mince words or dance around the reality for the sake of anyone. This isn't to say that the right student can't benefit from the right MFA program (e.g., at Florida State)--they can, of course. I'm addressing the members of the Literary Academic Complex (LAC), also known as the Literary Industrial Complex (LIC), who relentlessly promote the marketing myth that the odds are you'll never amount to much as a writer without an MFA. Yes, no fooling. Just click to the article at WE regarding the MFA, and when you arrive, click on the link to an MFA writer poll and you will see Gary Shteyngart quacking forth on this very subject ("You have to get an MFA"). No conflict of interest here? Gary has an MFA, and how could this smiling goofy guy be steering us wrong? Thanks, Gary, for doing your part to convince America's youth to incur millions in debt to obtain MFA degrees of highly dubious worth. However, if we could overhear Gary talking in whispers at one of his terribly boring academic cocktail parties, you would get the real skinny, and it would sound something like this:
"Look, we all know there are only a handful of MFA programs in the country that are worth a shit, but you know, when you're interviewed you have to dumb it down so you won't piss anyone off."
One of the fatal flaws of MFA programs consists of using a writer group of fellow students (who know as little or less than you) to critique your work for the purpose of improving it, which brings me around to another bit of really bad advice: JOIN A WRITER GROUP. I wrote an  article here at WE that pretty much sums up why being in a writer group for critique and guidance can be a train wreck in any number of ways. Again, like the MFA, you're supposing that people who know as little or less than you (otherwise why would they be there?) are capable of providing constructive advice, but since you aren't knowledgeable enough to know one way or another whether or not the advice is good, you should never take it without follow-up investigation--and if you're going to be constantly reality-checking what you hear, why stay in the group at all?... Yes, it's a social fest, it can be fun, or it can be oppressive and even ugly.

Did you know, THE ELEMENTS OF WRITING GOOD FICTION CANNOT BE TAUGHT? I didn't know it either until Isabella Allende told me so. She believes, as I do, that great authors are self-made, not baked from a workshop recipe, but she goes on further to say that students of novel writing are only capable of learning a limited subset of craft. Why? I'm not sure. She's not as extreme as the Iowa mantra that states "Writing Cannot be Taught, only talent developed," but she's closing in on it. From the video below (final 30%):
"I have twenty students working on a novel, but only one might create a good novel... I can teach them a few things about the writing, but I cannot teach suspense, tension, tone... how to play with the imagination of the reader, what is the highlight of the story..." 
Hmmm, why not? We teach it effectively in Algonkian workshops and in online programs--quite effectively I might add. Tension and suspense derive from a number of sources, and all these are knowable, and examples can be displayed. We can't fold on our teaching methods because Isabella Allende believes otherwise. To each his own. Btw, I love her writing.


Finally, we come around to our number ten on the list: Don't plan or outline your novel, let the character write the novel, or even more simply, "Just start writing." How many times have I heard that? And guess where? At a writer conference, of course. A certain type of author is asked whether or not they plot or outline ahead of time. They smile and say something like, "I've been asked this question before, and I have to say no, I don't outline. It just all comes to me, the character inhabits me..." or some such drivel.

But let's be logical.

If you understand the primary foundations for writing a novel you know your plot line must develop certain points as it moves forward, and you know also that you must write separate scenes in the novel to perform certain tasks relevant to the plot line, as well as to the character arcs, etc. It's a complex undertaking, and one that demands a certain amount of planning. If you are some kind of genius and can keep it all in your head, more power to you, but if you are like me, you need to organize and place ideas on paper (or on the computer). Also, logic dictates that if your novel plot lines are a series of circumstances, reversals, and events that tie together, it only makes sense that you better know how point A gets to point M before you will know how point M gets to point Z.

Consider, do screenplay writers or playwrights just start writing without any planning? Of course not. So why should the novel be different? And we're not talking about Beckett or Joycean flights of fancy, we're talking about the vast bulk of commercial novels, whether they be upmarket or genre.

Btw, here we have a bunch of freelance editors confirming this awful advice. Interesting, yes, but if you look closely you'll see they are trying to sell you their editorial services. Perhaps the less you plan your novel, the more work they'll have to do?

Now for the summary.

The Writer's Edge top ten worst pieces of writing advice:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know 
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice (OMG!)
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title (someone else will)
  • Any writer conference is helpful (beware--all events are not created equal)
  • You need to get an MFA (or you wont' be taken seriously)
  • Join a writer group (to improve your writing and get good feedback)
  • The art of fiction can't be taught (and "writing can't be taught")
  • Don't outline or plan your novel (let it happen)











 
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